Running a business is hard work, and you probably had to learn a few tough lessons along the way. Do you remember where you learned those lessons? Chances are you had an informal mentor in your life who helped you discover some of the most important parts of business.
Sadly, not everyone has access to a mentor, especially if they haven’t had the chance to work in a business environment where leadership freely shares with those they manage. In some larger companies, C-level leaders may even have their own floor of a building, further insulating them from the opportunity to pass on what they know to the employees who truly need it.
Are you doing your part to inspire others with the passion for succeeding? If not, it may be time to consider mentorship.
What is mentorship?
Mentoring (or mentorship) is when an upper-level leader, often the business owner, forms a professional relationship with a more junior professional for the purpose of helping that person in their professional development.
Mentoring is different from job training or an internship, in that it doesn’t focus on specific job tasks. It doesn’t always have to be through a formal program, either. A mentorship can be more relaxed, but it should be consistent and last for at least a year for the person being mentored to receive the greatest benefit.
Why my mentor mattered
I was a 22-year-old single mother working as an executive assistant when the corporation I worked for selected me for a business leadership program. Just 12 out of hundreds were selected, and for someone with no college degree, it was just what I needed to show me the path forward in the industry.
We received intense one-on-one training from the top C-level leaders, but it wasn’t the weeklong retreats on business writing that helped me grow as much as getting my own mentor.
My mentor was the chief financial officer (CFO) of the company. He had years of experience managing the money matters of Fortune 500 companies, and he took me for a tuna melt at the best café in town once a month as part of our mentoring program.
While I grew in my knowledge of business and finance through being in the classroom, it was the personal encouragement I received regarding life that really made the difference. He was a warm individual, but he expected me to rise to the opportunities given.
His clear conveyance of what it took to be a leader, and his invitation for me to pursue it for myself, is how I believe I’ve been able to move on to greater things today (20 years later!).
How it helps the next generation of leaders
My example is just one case of having someone I saw as important believe in me. It’s a confidence boost for sure, but mentoring really made the difference because my mentor came on board as a sponsor.
Sponsorship happens when someone in leadership not only takes you under their wing for advice or encouragement, but they advocate for you in the workplace. Business owners can become a sponsor when they show you how the business is run, put you in contact with industry leaders, and help open doors for you to do similar work—possibly even as a successor to the business in a high-ranking position.
Why sponsorship? We already know that “who you know” is an important factor in getting the right doors to open for you. When a mentor takes on the role of sponsor, they actively help you build social capital and show you the way through the often-complicated politics of an industry.
Warming up the room for you before joining a lunch meeting, for example, can get more eyes and ears on you—which can be all the difference in having your ideas accepted.
In industries where women aren’t filling as many leadership roles, such as tech or finance, simply having a sponsor is key to moving this needle. That first step up into management is often where women trail behind their male peers, and it’s enough to account for a pipeline of disparity leading to the C-level.
Mentoring equips the next generation of leaders; sponsorship makes sure the next generation of leaders gets to lead.
The perks for mentors
Here’s something I haven’t told many people: I had two mentors before I got the person who would finally advocate for me. Four months of canceled lunches and blown-off phone calls left me more discouraged than if I had never gotten a mentor.
It took someone who understood the value of mentorship to finally do it well, and he knew the benefits of taking time out to teach me.
What are the benefits? For one, you’re changing the DNA of future leaders. If you have a passion for something (Sustainability? Design? Data analytics?), you have a captive audience who will hear your values in the context of best business practices.
That’s powerful, and it’s something leaders should be taking advantage of to make sure the culture of their industry doesn’t decay over time.
Mentorship is also an amazing external recruitment tool. When I told my friends about the leadership program I was accepted to, they wanted to know more about working in the same industry. People in my life saw a change; it made my industry look good. That’s not the sort of brand messaging you could ever do on TikTok.
Mentoring someone is also an excellent way to get a good look at the inner workings of your business outside of your own perspective. This is vital for business owners who start in a new industry instead of working their way up. It’s one of the best ways to get an honest look at the ups and downs of any industry.
How to get started as a mentor
First, being a mentor is not something to take casually. If you’re a business owner, you’re likely very busy. Don’t take on the role if you can’t really put your best into it. Having a mentor who isn’t really into it makes the mentee feel like a burden—which is the opposite of the empowerment mentoring hopes to achieve.
If you’re ready to commit, you need to identify if you want to mentor within your own business or the greater industry at large.
If an internal mentorship is your jam, consider any legal issues you may need to resolve first, such as having your mentee sign confidentiality agreements. (Mentoring may have you commonly sharing trade secrets or working in parts of the company that isn’t in the mentee’s standard job description.)
After you have that out of the way, think carefully about who may be a great candidate for mentorship. These may be women in your industry who have a spark of ingenuity or a willingness to learn; look for hints that they could be poised to do something more right now.
There are many external resources on mentoring, including books and workshops. But these basic tips can help make it work:
- Form a schedule for meetings and stick to them. It doesn’t have to be weekly, but a casual lunch away from the office will help your mentee open up and talk more freely about their needs. Don’t skip out unless it’s urgent, and do better next time.
- Keep an open-door policy. Between meetings, your mentee will have questions. Let them know they can come to you, and clearly explain how they can do so. (Are you an email person? Would having your cell phone number be suitable?)
- Invest in their skills development. Encourage them to pursue growth in areas outside of their job tasks that may someday benefit them and the company as a whole. Take them along to your next conference or webinar, for example.
- Share your connections. Keep sponsoring them in their career path. Drop their name to those who matter. Make introductions.
- Listen. As much as you have to teach, take time to hear them out. Not only are you helping them trust you, but you can be a better sense of the workplace they exist in.
Business mentoring has been around for a long time, but it’s vastly different from an internship or apprenticeship (which are skills or tasked-based in nature). If nothing else, look back on your journey and make notes for all the times you were helped by someone.
From college professors to roommates to bosses, we all need a little help along the way. Take those things that inspired you, and put them into practice for the next generation.
Linsey Knerl is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech and finance solutions.