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The Executive Woman's Guide to Mentoring

The Executive Woman's Guide to Mentoring

Gender plays no role in a successful mentoring relationship

Creating a Mentoring Relationship

Mentoring can work well whether the relationship is announced (that is, both parties explicitly label their relationship as mentoring) or it's informal. Those seeking the informal relationships, anecdotally speaking, seem to pick the chain-of-command, such as a manager who takes an interest in a junior staff member's career and keeps in touch after each moves on. For example, Wallace's mentees generally are people who work for her, either directly or, more often, lower in the organization.

But mentoring can come from formalized "matchmaking" too. Although she's had informal mentors and works actively as a volunteer with young women exploring IT, Maini's primary mentoring experience has been within the confines of Blue Cross/Blue Shield's formal mentoring program. The company's program is available for all employees (not just in IT) and to both men and women. Mentors and mentees are matched on résumés and on what the participants identify as areas upon which they want to improve.

Wallace joined Menttium, an organization that matches senior executives with up and coming women managers. "Through Menttium," she says, "I was paired with a mentee I would never have known otherwise. The Menttium relationship was the most formal because we didn't have a work environment in common and had to define the things we were going to work on together."

Making Mentoring Succeed

There are few horror stories about Mentoring Gone Bad. Nevertheless, executive women have plenty of advice about how to get the most from these relationships.

Honest and regular communication is among the most important factors, says Brigance. "It is all about establishing a connection and the mutual respect that enables you and your mentee to feel comfortable enough to ask questions and provide constructive feedback," she says. In an ideal relationship, she adds, the mentor should understand her mentee's strengths and weaknesses, just as the mentee should be receptive to hearing unvarnished feedback.

Confidentiality is critical. Mentors and mentees must be careful not to expose the other's vulnerabilities outside the coaching session. "The mentor must respect this issue if trust is to be established for the most productive mentoring relationships," says Wallace.

The mentor has the responsibility of bringing unbiased, confidential advice to help her mentee perform more effectively. It's also key, says Linda Siksna, vice president of IT shared services at Canadian Tire Corporation, to remain objective. To that end, Siksna feels it's important that the mentor and mentee not report to one another, directly or indirectly in the same organization.

"It's not enough to expose a person to what you do; you must take time to expose them to who you are," advises PSC's Rucker. She recommends describing your career path to the mentee so she can see that the mentor's accomplishments are also possible for her.

"If a mentoring relationship fails, it's because the mentee never found the personal connection that transforms time spent with you into time becoming you. Somewhere, somehow, they need to see themselves in you and know that what you've done, they can do also," says Rucker.

Finally, mentoring can only work if you commit the time to make it work properly, and you focus on the mentee's needs, says Wallace. "As a mentor, I like to reach out to people who are promising men and women-those who work hard to deliver results and bring a passion to what they do. I want to help these people make progress in their careers."

Parting Ways?

When do you know it's time for the relationship to end-positively or negatively?

Usually, it's pretty obvious. Brigance recommends that the participants set up an agenda to focus on at the outset of the mentoring relationship. "Depending on how many areas you identify, you can mutually agree on the length of the relationship," she says.

For Klock, a mentoring relationship should end when both parties feel they have met their objectives, or when they determine that the objectives are no longer important to complete. Formal mentoring also can end when the mentee reaches the point of being more of a peer either inside or outside of the company. This does not mean that the mentee can never again approach her mentor. "I still go back to a few mentors for advice periodically. I don't know that I have ever shut off that relationship completely," says Klock.

Indeed, "old" mentoring relationships often turn into friendships. "Those relationships go on forever," says Maini.

When the relationship isn't working out, it's important to be honest. "It's better to part than to make it burdensome," says Maini. "Just be adult about it."

Being a mentor isn't always easy. Aside from the time and energy requirements, a mentor has to remain neutral in helping a mentee handle a problem. The mentor must leave out her own feelings (i.e. what she would do personally) in coaching the mentee to weigh all options and come to a conclusion herself, says Klock.

Despite mentoring's challenges, it's worth the effort to earn the rewards. Says Maini, "Mentoring is important and should play a role in one's career. Use the experience to grow and navigate and move up."

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