What It Takes to Be a Mentor

Two women having a discussion in a cafe.

Think back over the course of your career to the times when it felt like everything was going slightly over your head and you were probably operating with the famous “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality. If you were lucky enough to have a mentor, even an informal one, during these periods of uncertainty (and possibly self-consciousness), you had the advantage of navigating the situations with someone there to support and encourage you along the way. Having a mentor is, without a doubt, a huge advantage for any professional. 

When you hear the word “mentor” your mind may immediately associate it with someone who is a subject-matter expert or industry leader. While someone with those qualifications can certainly serve as a mentor, the title isn’t exclusive to them.

Anyone can be a mentor as long as they have a decent level of experience in the workforce and the desire to offer guidance to a fellow professional who could use a boost. In fact, chances are high that you have everything it takes to be an incredible mentor and that your advice and support could dramatically benefit someone who is in a period of professional uncertainty.

What is a mentor? 

While their career path may be admirable, a mentor isn’t an idol. They are an approachable person who has knowledge and experience in a certain subject area that can be shared with someone else. 

What does a mentor do?

On a personal level, mentor-mentee relationships vary from strictly business to full-fledged friendships, and they can work together on anything from resume and interviewing tips to company-specific projects to industry networking. At its core, though, this relationship is about the mentor offering advice and support to someone with less experience than them in a specific area. 

Mentors typically meet up with their mentees on a regular basis (more frequently during periods of uncertainty for the mentee) to catch up, goal plan and/or get progress updates, network, serve as a listener or sounding board and offer advice through shared experiences. The first few meetings are typically structured and have a clear goal or purpose in mind, but ideally, it will become an ongoing relationship. Over time the mentee’s needs will likely change, so the meet-ups will adapt to reflect those needs.

Here are some things a mentor may do or help with:

  • Establish an achievable goal, plan out how to execute it, and make modifications as needed throughout the process of attaining it
  • Provide and/or identify helpful resources 
  • Connect with helpful industry contacts
  • Check-in at the end of a project/presentation/etc. to show support and help debrief 
  • Review and critique work (anything from a resume to project proposal)
  • Hold mock interviews or serve as a practice audience for a presentation
  • Share industry-specific news and experiences
  • Give feedback and advice across a variety of topics

What makes a good mentor?

There isn’t a secret formula to what makes a “perfect” mentor, because a lot of it has to do with personal chemistry. What is an incredible fit for one person can be a total flop for another, to no fault of the mentor.

That being said, here are some of the boxes a good mentor can likely check.

  • Bandwidth to meet once per month, for at least three months (but ideally as-needed or ongoing)
  • Reliable, respectful and accessible
  • General desire and enthusiasm needed to help someone succeed
  • A career history that includes highs and lows, allowing for empathy and perspective
  • Ability to provide honest and constructive feedback in a thoughtful and meaningful way
  • Holding a position within a few levels of the mentee’s current or prospective title (too far ahead or behind can create a disconnect in relatability)

By far, the most important quality a good mentor will have is a vested interest in their mentee’s success. That in itself will be a driving factor in if and how the relationship grows over time. The mentors who truly commit to the role and make the relationship a priority are the ones who make a difference and get results.

If you have 5 years of professional experience, or more, then you have relevant experiences that can help you be a great mentor for someone else. Remember, every day women are entering, or re-entering the workforce, and you have the ability to help someone succeed based on where you are and where you’ve been compared to where they are in their career journey.

two women talkingWhat to Expect from a Mentor

Appropriately setting expectations in a mentor-mentee relationship will benefit both parties and create greater potential for the relationship to succeed. Read more on what to expect in a mentorship.

Why serve as a mentor?

Sure, helping someone succeed sounds great, but we live in a transactional world and time is a precious commodity that should be spent wisely. With so many commitments in life (especially for working parents), it can be very difficult to offer a piece of yourself up to someone who will give you nothing in return. While your mentee will seemingly gain the most obvious benefits from the relationship, a mentor does not come up empty-handed. In fact, mentors tend to get just as much out of the relationship as their mentee, the benefits just look a little different. 

Develop leadership and management skills

Serving as a mentor is especially great for someone who either serves or wants to serve in a leadership role because it gives you an opportunity to work on your listening skills and provide feedback. You probably won’t be present for your mentee’s big meeting or presentation, so you have to rely on their version of the story to get a picture of how it went. You’ll have to give them your full attention, ask clarifying questions and base your advice for moving forward off of the information you’re given.

You’ll also flex your management and organization muscles a bit as a mentor because you’ll be working closely with your mentee creating goals, strategizing plans, making adjustments and watching how your direction plays out in the real world. It’s actually pretty high stakes because your success as a mentor relies heavily on your ability to listen and provide direction. 

Shape personal growth with a new perspective 

You’ll get a lot out of mentoring on a personal level, too. In addition to the satisfaction of helping someone else, you get the opportunity to self-reflect on your career journey and put your mistakes and missteps to good use. Your mentee may also have a totally different and new perspective on something that you had never considered before. Finally, one study found that people who serve as mentors are less likely to procrastinate on tasks that are achievable but just seem “too overwhelming” on the surface - so you may find the motivation to polish up your own resume or create goals for yourself simply because you mentored someone else.

How to get started as a mentor

If you’ve had even just a few years in the professional workplace, you’ve probably had your fair share of highs and lows that have helped shape you into the incredible professional you are. Your career journey, no matter what it looks like, has given you experience and knowledge that someone else could really benefit from and if you have the bandwidth and desire to help someone out, you should put those lessons learned to good use by serving as a mentor. 

There are all kinds of ways to get started as a mentor, it’s just a matter of preference. One option is to sign up for a program like RALLY, The Mom Project's online community that will match you with someone whose needs align with your areas of expertise. You can also ask around at work to find out if your company has a formal mentoring program that you can sign up for. If nothing else, you can simply offer to serve as a mentor to someone who could use a little boost (just make sure you offer it in an empowering way).

We all move forward when we move together.

👉 Do you have time to give a boost? RALLY is a community-driven program exclusively from the Mom Project designed to give you a space to connect for advice (give, get, both) at the right time — right where you are. Learn more and apply

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