Many people who succeed in business, particularly women, point to someone who helped them along the way. Someone who acted as a sounding board, who shared their wisdom and experience, and offered insights about how to achieve success in a specific industry.

That person giving advice, insight, and perspective was a mentor.

Being mentored and mentoring others is a critical part of many women’s successes. Here’s how mentoring works, how it differs from coaching, how a mentor-mentee relationship can benefit both women, and how to find the right mentor.

Differences Between Coaching and Mentoring

Although many people use the terms interchangeably, traditional coaching and mentoring are different.

Coaching tends to be performance-driven, building skills and behaviors that require in-depth focus. The goal is often to improve the employee’s job capabilities. A coach will listen, question, and challenge the individual’s assumptions to help clarify their thinking and identify their own solutions. The coach may or may not be in the same industry, and typically the coaching has a defined end date.

Mentoring can last anywhere from a few months to years. Mentors act as guides, and the process is normally less structured than coaching. Having attained success in an organization or industry, mentors share their knowledge, skills, experiences—the things they have found helpful in their own success—to help someone else, usually someone the organization values.

Like a coach, a mentor may help the mentee learn new skills, but that isn’t the primary goal.

When to Seek a Mentor

Seeking a mentor makes sense for someone who is trying to understand the industry and the organization, develop connections, and advance their career. A mentor helps a mentee navigate the organization and understand the dynamics that are in play.

Mentoring often focuses on leadership skills or skills that help the person enhance their relationships at work: influencing, working through problems, negotiation, conflict resolution, or general interpersonal skills.

One skill that may be necessary for women is confidence building. If they work in a male-dominated industry, for instance, they may need to learn how to succeed in that environment and how to address overt or covert biases.

How to Be a Good Mentor or Mentee

At the outset, both parties should agree in advance what a successful mentor-mentee relationship looks like, what each person expects to get from the process, and the ground rules they will implement to respect each other’s time.

Mentors are most effective when they:

  • Share their own knowledge and experiences
  • Help the mentee think through her career goals
  • Help the mentee build her confidence
  • Foster leadership development skills such as listening, relationship management, and negotiation
  • Act as a sounding board for brainstorming ideas or solving problems
  • Teach the mentee how to expand her network
  • Highlight certain career or growth opportunities the mentee might not know about
  • Provide feedback to the mentee on how she is perceived
  • Encourage new ways of thinking

In turn, the mentee should:

  • Come prepared with a goal for the mentor relationship and each conversation
  • Be honest about her goals
  • Show gratitude to the mentor; acknowledge and thank her
  • Take responsibility for her own mistakes and challenges
  • Try to add value to the mentor by sharing information she may not have and that could impact her success
  • Protect the confidentiality of the mentor
  • Offer to be a mentor to other women

The mentee should not:

  • Use the mentor’s name or position to gain access to other senior leaders or to brag
  • Expect a mentor to guide the discussion
  • Expect the mentor to intervene with the boss or other leaders if they make a mistake
  • Gossip or share private conversations, especially if private to the mentor

Mentoring relationships that have clear expectations and guidelines that reflect respect for both members are likely to be productive and rewarding and encourage both parties to engage in future mentoring interactions.

A Key Decision in Choosing a Mentor

A critical question is whether you should try to find a mentor within your own organization or work with someone who has an outsider’s perspective. The answer depends on the goals of both parties, but primarily the mentee.

Working with a mentor in the same organization, or even the same industry, offers many benefits:

  • Knowledge transfer from one generation of leaders to another or between different parts of the business. When you and your mentor are in the same company, you’re obtaining the mentor’s extensive knowledge about other parts of the organization and how they function. This can expand your future career options. Both you and the organization win when that happens.
  • Enhanced retention. If you have a mentor in your own organization who provides excellent insight and invests in your growth, you’re more likely to stay with that company.
  • Stronger leadership skills. When your mentor is a respected internal leader, you’re exposed to her understanding of the leadership values and expectations in the organization. Her personal experiences will provide you with a valuable education in how leaders are selected and developed in the company. An external mentor won’t know the culture and can’t advise you on the political aspects of leading within the organization.
  • Inside perspective. Your mentor knows the players, the hierarchy, and the organizational structure, and may have insight into promotional opportunities for you. Sometimes your mentor can recommend you for key projects or opportunities when she hears about them.

At the same time, working with a mentor outside the organization can offer some advantages:

  • Diverse approaches. An outside mentor can expand your understanding of other industries and/or ways of working. If you’re in IT, for example, the way that technology functions can be very different from one industry to another. If you both work in the same organization, you may not be exposed to business practices from different types of organizations.
  • Career exploration. Working with a mentor from another industry can expose you to a variety of possible career paths. Many work skills are transferable to different industries, and a relationship with a senior leader in another business could lead to a new type of career.
  • Reduced career risk. In the rare event that the relationship with your mentor sours, the situation could have a negative impact on your career opportunities. If you make a significant mistake with a powerful internal mentor, you may need to find a new job.

How to Find a Mentor

The best way to choose a mentor is to find someone you admire; someone with whom you share a professional mindset and whose values you share; someone who has a professional style you want to emulate; or experiences and a skillset that you want to develop. Then, just ask her. Many women are happy to be asked to mentor other women and consider it a way of “giving back” to the next generation. If your chosen mentor is unable or unwilling to take on the role, she’ll tell you. Be gracious—and go find another candidate.

There are several sources for finding mentors:

  • Programs offered by your company. These programs may allow you to select a mentor from a list of leaders or may assign you to a mentor. Either situation has benefits to you.
  • Friends or acquaintances. Having something in common can be a comfortable place to start a mentor/mentee relationship. Select individuals whom you respect and who hold positions that interest you.
  • Your network. If you volunteer for a charitable organization, belong to a business association, or are part of a college alumni network, you may find several viable mentor candidates. If you can offer reciprocal services, you are more likely to receive a positive response from the potential mentor.

Regardless of the source, you can expect your mentoring relationship to result in a deep personal connection, professional insight, and informed support to address challenges that are unique to women at work.

Coaches and mentors can serve a purpose at different stages in a career. For help in deciding which is best for your employees and your organization, contact the Lindenberger Group—two-time recipient of the national Athena Award for Excellence in Mentoring. We can assist you in developing and implementing formal and informal coaching and mentoring programs. For more information or to discuss your HR needs, please contact us at 609-730-1049 or send us an email.