Help! How Can I Be a Better Mentor?

There’s more to helping someone succeed than giving top-down advice. Megan explains.

Dear OOO,

My company started a mentorship program mid-pandemic, and I was assigned to mentor a young and extremely talented colleague. I’m thrilled about this! But I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m not doing enough for her. We check in regularly and talk about a mix of big-picture issues and specific projects she’s working on, but I don’t control her work assignments, and we can’t meet in person, and I don’t know if I’m having the impact she was looking for when she signed up. How can I be a better mentor?

–New York

The good news, New York, is that simply by having a mentor, your young colleague is already ahead of the game. While 75 percent of professional workers crave mentorship, according to Harvard Business Review, just 37 percent of them say they have a mentor. So take heart that you’re making some sort of difference just by being present.

I will confess, though, to some mixed feelings about company-sponsored mentorship programs. It’s better than nothing, of course: At many (most?) workplaces, you’re left to sink or swim on your own, with some help from a supportive boss if you’re exceptionally lucky. But in my experience, official mentoring programs often feel like they’re more about HR ticking a box than reflecting actual corporate values. Companies often start these efforts in response to employee complaints that they don’t see a path to advancement—and doubly so for women and people of color.

But this approach is a bit of a square peg in a round hole. The biggest problem is that true mentorship is not about helping someone get promoted (or at least not solely so). CEOs need mentorship just as much as their assistants do. And companies are mostly terrible at creating clear paths for advancement, especially for those people they’ve neglected for years or decades. But fixing that requires putting in the hard, slow work of changing the company, not just spending a few hours pairing people up.

In fact, some research has found that women suffer from too much mentorship, when what they actually need is sponsorship—not someone to give them advice, but rather someone advocating for them to get a promotion or a raise. Personally, I’ve encountered many more men eager to offer life lessons, solicited or not, than ones interested in making sure I get credit for my work or a seat at the table for consequential meetings. The latter group, though, is the one who has made the much bigger impact on my career. Meanwhile, my best mentors have always been peers, not superiors—the kind of people I can go to with a “Hey, how are you dealing with this?” or who will suggest my name for opportunities.

None of this is to say that mentorship doesn’t matter, though, or that there’s no point in aspiring to be a better mentor to your young colleague. But in order to do it, you’re going to need to be very clear about her goals. Your question specifies that this is a voluntary program, so understanding what was on her mind when she signed up will be core to a productive relationship. If you didn’t do this earlier, it’s not too late—the first part of your relationship may have been about getting to know each other; chapter two can be more mission-focused.

A disproportionate amount of the burden of making a relationship feel fruitful is necessarily going to fall on the mentee, not the mentor. Only she knows how you can be most helpful to her, and you should ask her directly. (People are often afraid of awkwardness when asking “What do you want from me?” but OOO comes down firmly on the side of being direct.) Does she aspire to a career like yours? Does she need a senior person to whom she can put questions too delicate to take to her boss? Or is she mostly looking for someone to bounce ideas off?

Asking questions to help guide her to answers that feel right to her will always work better than just telling her how you would handle things. If your back-and-forth is limited to asking for and receiving advice, though, neither one of you will get as much out of the program as you’d hoped. Remember how I said my best mentors are usually peers? That’s because establishing equal footing makes it easier for each of you to both give and take from your conversations, rather than feeling like there’s a teacher and a student. That’s the vibe to strive for—even if you’re at different places on the corporate ladder. I bet you’ll find that elements of her description of her goals and challenges will resonate with you, and swapping stories will help build a trusting relationship.

Oh, and another thing: Keep it casual when possible. While scheduled video meetings are the best option for formal meetings at the moment, an occasional DM or text just to say hi, or to ask how her big presentation went, will make her feel she’s more to you than an assignment.

Lastly, even though you are a mentor and not a sponsor or boss, keep an eye out for opportunities to help her advance—whether that means a formal promotion or a one-time assignment you think she’d be especially excited about and that would help her grow in her job. As the more senior person in the relationship, you’re undoubtedly in meetings she’s not, and speaking up to help her get shots she deserves will count for a lot.

Then, the moment you’re both double-vaccinated, it’s time to meet up for a drink. You’re buying.

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