Mentorship and sponsorship are key drivers of success, yet women can have a harder time finding mentors and sponsors, especially ones with influence. The good news is that we can mentor other women at any stage in our careers, and it pays off when we do. Women who are mentored by women feel more supported and are often more satisfied with their career.1
Use our tips to be the best mentor/mentee you can be, and remember, like all good relationships, mentorship is a two-way street.
Don’t ask, "Will you be my mentor"
If you have to ask a woman to be your mentor, the answer is probably no. Mentorship relationships start with a mutual connection—and mentors often select protégés based on their performance and potential.2 So shift your thinking from "If I get a mentor, I’ll excel" to "If I excel, I will get a mentor." Find a woman whose career path aligns with your goals and work hard to get noticed. For example, share your ideas for making a project she’s leading better or volunteer for an initiative that’s important to her.''
Find a woman to mentor—it’s never too early
No matter what stage you’re at in your career, you can mentor another woman. If you’re farther along in your career, pay it forward by investing in a woman just starting out. And if you’re early in your career, find a woman who’s coming up behind you or a student who’s interested in your field. Don’t underestimate the value of your input—you may have just been through what she’s experiencing.
Your mentor’s time is valuable—treat it that way
Show your mentor you value her time by using it wisely. Avoid meeting just to catch up or asking questions you can find answers to yourself. Instead, come to her with thoughtful questions and be ready to discuss real challenges you’re facing. Then listen carefully to her recommendations and report back on your progress. She’s more likely to continue to invest in you if you’re acting on her input—and she sees the impact she’s having on your career.
Invest in your mentee's success
Commit time and energy to developing your mentee. Make yourself available and take the time to understand her questions and give her thoughtful and thorough input. Ask your mentee for regular updates. The more you understand her progress—and what’s working and what's not, the more effective you can be as a mentor. If she's not using your time wisely, be clear about your expectations and set guidelines for your time together. You'll both benefit from getting into a good rhythm.
View feedback as a gift
Women don’t always get the direct input they need to be their best selves because coworkers may be nervous about eliciting an emotional response.5 Make sure you don’t fall into this trap with your mentor. Solicit her feedback whenever you can by asking specific questions like, “How can I improve?” and “What am I not doing that I should be?” The more you ask for and accept her feedback, the faster you’ll learn—and odds are she’ll respect your openness and willingness to grow.
Give open, honest input—even when it’s hard
Direct, actionable feedback is a gift, but women often receive less of it. Look for opportunities to give your mentee specific input for improving her performance and learning new skills. Whenever possible, share your input in the moment, when it’s most effective. If you hold back to protect your mentee’s feelings, you’re not helping her. Remember, your honest feedback will help her advance more quickly.
Build trust with your mentor
Over time mentors can develop into sponsors who use their status and clout to create opportunities and make connections for you. Before your mentor will sponsor you, she needs to trust that you are reliable and a bet worth making. To build trust, always follow through on what you say you’re going to do and always do your very best work. When you’re consistent over time, you build valuable trust with your mentor—and your coworkers.
Don’t just mentor—sponsor!
The best mentors go beyond mentorship and advocate for their mentees. Start by understanding your mentee’s career goals, then think through her best path forward and how you can help. Endorse her on social media. Recommend her for a high-profile project. Introduce her to people in your network. Find ways to open doors for her and invest in her success.
- For a review of research see Carol T. Kulik, Isabel Metz, and Jill A. Gould, “In the Company of Women: The Well-Being Consequences of Working with (and for) women,” in Handbook on Well-Being of Working Women, ed. Mary L. Connerley and Jiyun Wu (New York: Springer, 2016), 189; Sarah Dinolfo, Christine Silva, and Nancy M. Carter, High-Potentials in the Pipeline: Leaders Pay it Forward, Catalyst (2012); K. E. O’Brien, A. Biga, S.R. Kessler, and T.D Allen, “A Meta-Analytic Investigation of Gender Differences in Mentoring,” Journal of Management 36, no. 2, (2010): 537–554, jom.sagepub.com/content/36/2/537.short.
- Romila Singh, Belle Rose Ragins, and Phyllis Tharenou, “Who Gets a Mentor? A Longitudinal Assessment of the Rising Star Hypothesis,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 74, no. 1 (2009): 11–17; and Tammy D. Allen, Mark L. Poteet, and Joyce E. A. Russell, “Protégé Selection by Mentors: What Makes the Difference?,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 21, no. 3 (2000): 271–82.
- LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2015 (September 2015), womenintheworkplace.com/ui/pdfs/Women_in_the_Workplace_2015.pdf?v=5.
- Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard, “Research: Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back,” Harvard Business Review, April 29, 2016, hbr.org/2016/04/research-vague-feedback-is-holding-women-back.
- Sylvia Ann Hewlett et al., The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling, a Harvard Business Review Research Report (December 2010), 9–11, 30percentclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/The-Sponsor-Effect.pdf