Five tough lessons on being a mentor
I have mentored on and off for the last 20 years but in the last 2 years since I stepped down as CEO I have focused almost entirely on women, especially new CEOs and entrepreneurs. And I have learned some hard lessons in this process – all of which are obvious, but all of which can be easily forgotten.
1. Not everyone who asks for your help is a good match
The chemistry has to work. The mentee has to truly want your advice, and you need to enjoy being with her. Trust your gut. If you find the interaction tough on the first meeting then it is unlikely to get better (a bit like dating). If you find the mentee talks more than they listen take a deep breath and assess whether you can be effective (unless that is the issue she is asking for help on). If you are irritated, or even bored, in the interaction ask yourself honestly can you be helpful.
2. Trust is essential
And the trust needs be to two-way. You must trust enough to be truly yourself and give the honest advice you believe in as constructive a way as you can, and vice versa. If you start to believe that either of you cannot, or is not, being open and honest then gently end the relationship.
3. Again, trust is essential
Growth is hard and takes introspection and vulnerability; it takes the mentee having the ability to admit when she has messed up, or to hear difficult feedback. Only by facing mistakes can you get to the bottom of why it happened and then talk through a change in knowledge or skills to be pursued. If you are mentoring someone who has answers for everything, or who cannot admit their challenges, then again, gently end the relationship. Likewise if you don’t feel emotionally safe in the relationship.
4. Be clear about motivation, especially yours
Because coaching becomes a labor of love it’s important to be clear about what is motivating you in the relationship. I get asked many times a week to be a mentor and I have learned, the hard way, to pay attention to what is driving me. It’s not about making money (because even if you charge for your time as a consultant or take stock options there are easier ways to make money). It might be about responding to a friend who has asked you to help someone they are vested in in some way. But in the end the most productive relationships develop because you care; you care that she grows and becomes successful. I recently started mentoring a future star who was willing to pay for basic workplace skills coaching in her first job but I feel so privileged that she is genuinely seeking my help that I signed up and said “no I won’t take your money”. Sometimes I do, if many hours are needed and the company will pay, sometimes I don’t.
5. Have integrity about your standards
I’m passionate about women achieving economic equality. So passionate I am leading a delegation of women into a tough part of the world next year to help female entrepreneurs. But I am realizing equality also means no short cuts for women. Women leaders need to be held to the same ethical and legal standards as men, no matter now much I may want to cut a female leader some slack when I see bad behavior. And I need to hold myself to the same standards. So sometimes the process hurts because I want so much for women to win, but not at the cost of my integrity.
All that said, mentoring and coaching can be incredibly rewarding, especially when I work with smart young women who are becoming amazing leaders and I get to participate helping them in some small way (ladies you know who you are!).
Photo: Snippet of Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes, Rome © 2016 Penny Herscher