How to Become a Mentor
Be a better ally to equity-seeking groups.
Posted Oct 13, 2020
In my self-education about how to become a better ally, I realized a gesture each and every one of us can do is become someone's mentor. You may now be saying to yourself that you haven't got enough experience or wisdom to be someone's mentor. It's not true. Everyone has something to offer, even if it's acting as a peer mentor. For example, maybe you can offer to help a new employee navigate the office, the boss, or the politics. Or it could be helping someone understand the technical knowledge needed, how your own role works with their role, interpersonal skills, or leadership challenges. Mentoring also doesn't have to be formal. It doesn't need to be an "I would like to mentor you" or "let's set out specific times to talk," although offering formal mentorship is fine as well.
Typically, we will naturally help those that remind us of ourselves, and we may overlook others dissimilar to us. However, in a world with skewed representation, fewer people are likely to reach out and help those from an equity-seeking group. So when you are considering whom you may want to help out ensure you are considering everyone around you.
How to prepare to be a mentor
Now that you are considering becoming a mentor, you need to take the time to prepare. As a first step, think about the support that you have received in the past from others. What aspects did you enjoy and what would you improve? What can you take those learnings and apply them to your approach?
Second, consider what strengths do you bring? And, what are the areas for yourself to improve? Mentoring is a great opportunity for you, yourself, to develop skills, but your own development should be ancillary to the protégé's goals.
Third, recognize that you need to be an active listener and have an open mind, particularly if people come from a different background than you. Reminding yourself that there is more than one way to achieve a goal and your protégé doesn't need to follow your exact path is important. Your goal is to help them find the best path for them, not push them towards your ideas.
Finally, recognize that a mentoring relationship will take some time out of your day. Some of the biggest barriers to effective mentorships are not the conversations themselves, but having the time to host them. If you can find ways to incorporate them into your existing schedule it may help. For instance, meet over lunch, over morning coffee, or even do a walking meeting during the day. These more casual settings will also help you both relax and be more genuine.
How to approach a potential protégé
If you don't already know the person, kick off a conversation by introducing yourself and tell them a bit about yourself. Being open and honest with them will help them feel more comfortable with why you are offering help. Then ask the person if they need help with x, y, and/or z.
Don't be disappointed if they say no. This person may already have help, they may be overwhelmed, they may be distrustful, etc. Just let them know you are there if they change their mind or if circumstances change.
If they do accept your help, ask when you can swing by and discuss or set up a formal time to meet. At the second discussion, ask them about their experiences and strengths, and ask about what gaps they are hoping to close. Ask what their career goals are and be flexible to letting the conversation drift from what you initially proposed. It's important to be honest about what you can bring and how you can help. Even discuss your limitations if they need something you cannot offer or are uncomfortable offering. Be clear about boundaries and expectations. If you feel the conversation is leading to an area that you aren't comfortable with or is beyond your expertise, be honest with them and potentially offer to connect them with someone who is a better fit.
How to build the relationship
To build and maintain any relationship, including mentoring relationships, trust and open communication is key. This means that confidentiality is important to create a safe space. As a mentor, this also means that you should be open to receiving feedback occasionally too, particularly in a peer relationship. With equity-seeking groups, you may also realize your own privileges or be exposed to more inequities that you weren't aware of. Use this as an opportunity to learn and help make changes. This may involve you to advocate on behalf of your protégé if the circumstances arise. You may become a role model not just for your protégé but also for change.
Remember that any relationship also needs strong commitment. So setting a schedule for meeting frequency (once a week, once a month) is important even if it's just an expectation that you will check-in at some point each week.
Finally, you cannot expect drastic change overnight, either on your mentoring skills or on the protégé's, so don't get impatient if progress takes longer than you expect.
If you are finding that the relationship is getting stagnant, have a conversation with your protégé to determine where there may be roadblocks. You may also want to consider getting a mentor yourself to help you mentor.
If you both feel that you have offered what you can for that particular stage of their development, it's fine to choose to end the mentoring relationship or just end the formal scheduling of meetings with casual check-in's.
Overall, mentoring relationships are a great way to help you use your experiences and privileges to help others. Not only will it help bridge gaps, but also seeing growth in your protégé and yourself is a fulfilling experience in itself.