Get a mentor, be a mentor

Mentoring quote: "The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves." Steven SpielbergCat Turhan, policy officer at GuildHE and Shân Wareing, pro vice-chancellor education and student experience at London South Bank University and Aurora speaker, have both had positive experiences of mentoring, and its power to support women’s careers. A generation apart in age, they compare some of those experiences.

What does having a mentor mean to you?
Cat: One of the most important things about mentoring is that there isn’t a fixed definition or relationship. Having a mentor has meant different things at the different stages of my life and career. The three most significant mentors for me were Judy Ryder, Jacqui Clements, and Kate Dolan from Warwick Students’ Union during my time as welfare and campaigns officer, and then president. Judy was not only someone who taught me about how to be an effective trustee, but helped me think strategically about where I wanted my career to go, and how to make that happen. Jacqui taught me how to be an effective leader by modelling great leadership: she showed me that women could be leaders by being themselves – and that kindness, passion and principles were more important than anything.

Finally, Kate gave me space and patience to help me articulate what I was worried about, and showed me great empathy and kindness when I was finding things particularly stressful. I found her experience very reassuring – whatever I was feeling was normal, and never impossible to solve. What has also been wonderful about these relationships is that even though I have moved to a different organisation, we are still very close – and I still turn to them when I need advice.

Shân: I had one formal mentor, at a time of job transition. I asked a senior women I very much respected for her leadership, intelligence, calmness and warmth, Carole Baume, to mentor me when I became a Dean. I was worried about the impact of a promotion on my family life, and wanted to make sure I could balance the two parts of my life. Her mentorship helped me articulate what I was worried about, and her example made me believe I could do it. It helped me see a way forward beyond my own knowledge and confidence levels. I’ve also had lots of informal mentorships, where I asked someone further along their career path than for help. Shout outs to Linda Thomas and Sally Brown in particular, who helped me with job decisions! My colleague and friend Nancy Turner gave me a tiny replica of an inuksuk, a First Nation’s people statue, which in real life are giant stone monuments that stand on the horizon to show travellers that people have journeyed that way previously. They symbolise ‘you are not the first, it is possible’. That’s what mentoring means to me.

What does it mean to you to be a mentor?
Shân: I want to give something back. Life experience is easy to share and what I hope is that it accelerates the career journey for other people, and perhaps takes some of the stress and uncertainty out of it. When I mentor, the other person says what they want out of the process, and we make an informal agenda out of their questions, and talk through them at agreed intervals. It’s like helping someone see round a corner, and navigate that turn in their life.

How do mentoring relationships arise? (Formal/informal)
Shân: The formal relationships have happened when I asked someone to mentor me, and gave a reason (a transition to a more senior, more demanding job with a longer commute, when I had young children). When someone has come up to me and asked me to mentor them, it’s also been because they felt they were facing a particular dilemma they couldn’t quite see past.

Cat: Some mentoring relationships are developed from the professional circumstances or working environment. My current line manager, Kate Wicklow, is an amazing mentor – not only for helping me navigate HE policy, but also for advising me on how to strengthen my policy skills and confidence. However, she might not have been my mentor if she wasn’t already my boss. In the students’ union, sabbatical officers were paired up with mentors who were the senior managers of the organisation, as were student trustees with non-student directors (who were selected for having previous board experience). I think organisations that understand the benefit of mentoring show that they really value staff development. It certainly helped me grow as a person, and seek out different mentoring relationships in future roles.

Who initiates the mentoring relationship? Can the other person refuse?
Shân: It’s always been the mentee who initiates the relationship, in my experience. I turned down a request once, where I barely knew the person, and I have been turned down, twice, by people who said they were too busy.

Cat: Organisations can facilitate relationships, but ultimately it has to be down to the mentee to want it. Recently, an ex-colleague asked me if I would mentor one of her members of staff, as I have relevant experience in her chosen career path – so occasionally they come from surprising places.

How much challenge do you welcome / can you tolerate from a mentor?
Shân: I think ideally there is enough trust between the mentor and the mentee for the mentor to challenge the mentee quite robustly, but it has to feel safe. Knowing where that boundary is and not going beyond it into territory that may feel too challenging, or bullying, is really important. If the mentee doesn’t want to have a particular conversation, the mentor needs to respect that.

Cat: I think that depends on the context of the relationship. Mentors have to build trust and understand the mentee’s background before they challenge them directly, but in turn mentees should expect a mentoring relationship to be challenging them in order for them to progress.

Is a mentor purely professional, or do they overlap into your life outside work?Cat: I would count some of the most significant mentors in my life as great friends. A successful mentor understands the whole person, including any personal issues that person wishes to divulge. Having that in-depth understanding of someone can lead to a friendship.

Shân: definitely about the overlap, in my experience. Not to advise on how to live life outside work, but to talk about how professional and domestic life fit together.

Is it more important for women to have mentors/to be mentors?
Cat: There is already a systemic bias against women achieving in the workplace, and it is even worse for women of colour, for LGBTQ women, disabled women, and working class women. Women who have navigated through the system in spite of those biases have so much to teach younger women who are trying to do the same. There is a famous quote from Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State of the USA) – ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’. I’ve always tried to live my life by that quote, and hope that I will be in a position to mentor people in the future.

Shân: We still don’t have so many women in senior positions yet that it’s easy to see how women’s careers grow, so seeing someone in a similar field as yourself in a more senior position gives women insights into what’s required. The tensions between caring responsibilities and work trajectories are real, and hard to navigate. Women can find themselves in teams where they feel out of place, and talking to someone who has navigated that about how to be part of that team but retain your integrity and sense of self is very important.

How do you know when you have been a successful mentor?
Shân: When I am mentoring, I can see usually by someone’s next actions whether they are able to move on past whatever they were concerned about. You don’t know really what goes on in some else’s head, but you can see if they feel able to act positively. I do think mentors, like teachers, send people out into the world and often don’t know the effect they had, so it’s good to say thank you. I just wrote to my school English teacher to tell him what I am doing now, and that I am still grateful to him for teaching me Julius Caesar in 1981, and how my life changed because he inspired me to go to university.

If a mentor has feet of clay, does it matter?
Shân: No, it’s part of the deal! We all muddle through with our flaws, and recognising you don’t have to be perfect to get a job done, be good enough, and go home at the end of the day, is part of what you learn from mentors who are human just like you and me.

Cat: Absolutely not! If anything, it enhances the relationship. The stories where my mentors have made mistakes – and how they handled them – have been fundamental to the way I have treated mistakes in my own life. Women are often told that they have to be superwoman in order to succeed, and I think these narratives are particularly damaging to our self esteem and mental health. Flawed women are also successful women, and my mentors taught me that.

How long do mentoring relationships last? What’s the frequency and length of mentoring conversations?
Shân: The literature on mentoring tends to describe it as a long relationship, over years, but my experience has been of quite short relationships, to deal with particular transitions or issues. I think that’s a more flexible model that’s easier to adopt, and less commitment on both sides. It also allows for the growth of the mentee, who may need different guides at different career and life stages.

Cat: I think relationships can wax and wane, depending on the needs of the mentee, and the availability of both parties. Some relationships are very ‘of the moment’, whereas others will last for years. I think it is crucial that both parties communicate often and honestly. There should also be respect for the other’s commitments, priorities, and changes to their life which may have an impact on the relationship.

We hope by sharing our positive and varied experiences of mentoring, we have inspired and encouraged you to seek mentors, and to offer mentoring, as part of your career journey.

Many of our leadership programmes have mentoring or sponsorship elements to them, read about the sponsorship toolkit. You can also read others’ experiences of mentoring via blogs here and here. We are now accepting Aurora programme bookings for 2018-19 – find out more here.