A mentor is your role model. They’re someone you respect and admire, and who is willing to selflessly dedicate their time to constantly support and advise you so you stay on the right track. But what really makes a great mentor and how can they help women to excel in their career?
As someone with sisters who have achieved great things in “traditional” male jobs, I have had experience in being both mentored and being a mentor – insight and skills which have helped me to get where I am today. Whether it’s when I worked in the City, as an in-house lawyer or now, as a female director with my own law firm, I’ve applied my skills as confidant, guide and challenger when supporting other women, and men, throughout my career.
A mentor can be a line-manager, peer or ex-colleague but generally, it’s someone with more career experience than the employee. Companies assign mentors throughout all levels of the organisation to ensure a constant flow of talent is available to drive the business forward. It’s also a great way to build a strong culture of trust which has proven to boost motivation and performance. Reports by leadership development experts, The Forum Corporation, show a strong co-correlation between leaders that listen and guide their employees and those that inspire trust, whilst high-performing companies coach and mentor 20 per cent more than under-performing organisations.
A great mentor inspires, motivates and engages. They help individuals to recognise their strengths and weaknesses and teach them ways to utilise these to their advantage both professionally and personally. Any weakness they turn into an opportunity to develop skills and any strengths they build on, by delegating responsibility and by assigning challenging tasks. In short, they support and challenge in equal measure. For example, I often assign solicitors to support me on particularly challenging cases to take them out of their comfort zone and to stretch their skills.
However, knowing when to delegate can be tricky but a skilled mentor will always be listening and observing on the mentee’s progress, either via feedback from clients or customers or through regular one-to-one catch ups with the employee. Listening and knowing how to “decode” what people are saying (in other words, reading between the lines) is a great mentoring skill so you can draw out any issues or concerns.
Finally, a mentor should always be aware that an employee has a life outside the office. It’s their job to spot when there’s clashes between home and work which could be interfering with the employee’s performance, and to support them to find a solution that re-balances their job with personal commitments.
Mentoring professionals who are parents
Understanding family demands and encouraging employees to achieve a good work-life balance is fundamentally important when mentoring employees; if they are women then many may be the main carer at home, however more men and women now share the family responsibilities.
I have working parents in my company and recognise that it can be a tough juggling act but creating an open and honest culture where women feel confident to share issues with their mentor means that challenges can be quickly ironed out, leaving a happy and productive team. Work with your mentees to introduce and refine your staffing policies so they are parent friendly; it will also make the company more attractive to new recruits.
Mentoring female professionals
Mentors should also understand that there can be fundamental differences between men and women. From my own self awareness, as well as from my experience of coaching others, women have a tendency to over-think issues and to naturally provide more of the “why” when communicating. But asking questions and providing detail can be an advantage whether you’re a team member or leader as people tend to take greater ownership of their actions and therefore, are more committed to their job when they understand the context of the situation. Helping female employees to recognise these strengths is key to the mentoring role.
A lot of women also have a natural tendency to recognise and reward, and to encourage and develop, possibly because of the so called “motherly instinct”. A mentor should inspire and nurture these qualities, encouraging women to use their interpersonal skills to nurture others, which, in turn, motivates, engages and helps to build and retain talent.
Being a mentor isn’t the easiest of roles. It’s probably best compared to the role of “Best Man” at a wedding – it’s an honour to be asked but then there’s the time and commitment involved. It does take time and a lot of patience but if you do it well it can be extremely rewarding for both the mentor and mentee, and for the company’s overall productivity.
Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss the Real Business First Women programme:
Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit – designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.
Beverley Sunderland is MD of Crossland Employment Solicitors.
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