This is part four of the Women’s Agenda Mentee’s Manifesto, supported by Charles Sturt University.
One of the best lessons Oprah Winfrey gained from her mentor, the late poet Maya Angelou, is “when you learn, teach” and “when you get, give”.
At its core, this is the legacy that great mentors leave.
No matter what their specialist skills, experience or talents are, their greatest gift is the guidance and empathetic ear they provide to those who look up to them.
Charles Sturt University strategic professor and conjoint chair of Allied Health and Wellbeing Gail Whiteford has been a mentor for over 25 years.
She has worked with 15 mentees including an academic living in Palestine and facing immense struggle.
“To be someone who was able to say there are ways to feel unstuck, there are resources to hand, a plan to be made and I’m here to do that with you, and for you, and do it gladly, has changed her outlook a lot,” says Whiteford.
Mentoring is a powerful way to give back and ensure that women remain in highly competitive careers.
Whiteford, who has worked in a number of professorial and senior executive roles at universities, believes she would have greatly appreciated having a mentor in her early days.
“I was often the only woman in a team of men,” she says. “And probably doing that at a relatively young age and, at times, it was a bit lonely. I didn’t have someone to really share my experiences with or get guidance from.”
This experience has motivated Whiteford to be a mentor for others.
“To be able to make a contribution to someone’s life even in the smallest way is really rewarding,” she says
HOW TO FIND MENTEES
The best way to start mentoring others is to be approachable.
Keep the door open for people to reach out and spark a conversation with talent around you who might benefit from your guidance.
Dr Raji Ambikairajah, the 2018 New South Wales Woman of the Year and a non-executive director at the Sydney School of Entrepreneurship, mentors both men and women from middle management and executives through to new talent.
“I have had mentees who are 20 years older than me,” she says. “They’re keen to understand the business landscape and the perspectives and challenges that generations after them have.”
Meanwhile, Coder Academy’s general manager Sally Browner mentors senior high school students through to junior staff at startups.
“Early on in my career, I discovered that I was good at breaking down concepts and ideas for young trainees,” Browner says. “I enjoyed it and I received lots of positive feedback from my younger colleagues.”
Whoever you decide to mentor, formally or informally, it’s important to go in with a genuine motivation to help them succeed.
The best mentor-mentee relationships are built on authenticity and empowerment. So if you would like to make a lasting impact, always remember that.
“I think there is a natural chemistry that is an integral part of mentorship, it is not forced or prescriptive,” says Ambikairajah.
“There should be mutual respect between a mentor and mentee, and an openness to learn on both sides.”
HOW MUCH TIME WILL IT TAKE?
Every mentoring relationship is different.
How much effort and time is invested will depend on the boundaries set by both sides.
You may choose to meet your mentee every couple of months for a set time or you may prefer to do more informal catchups over the phone whenever they need.
“The topic of conversations, the issue that is being problem-solved and the amount of time is guided by the mentee,” says Ambikairajah.
“They are the ones who analyse what it is they want to achieve and direct the discussions accordingly.”
BE AN ACTIVIST FOR CHANGE
Mentoring, in many ways, is a form of activism.
If you work somewhere that’s lacking in support for women, you can make a real difference by introducing formal initiatives to change this.
Whiteford has helped set up and run a number of programs to help advance women in research.
“The Banksia program was able to support women who had come into universities who were still finishing off a higher degree and yet had high teaching loads, which the junior academics tend to get,” she says.
“So they get in a trap where they can’t quite finish off their PhD, they’re teaching a heap, they’ve got a lot on their plate, they may have young kids.
“And what the Banksia program was able to do was to provide the resources to buy their time out for a semester so for six months they continued to get their salary but actually were freed up to complete their higher degree.”
If you’d like to introduce a formal mentoring program or an initiative like this where you work, it’s important to build your case around the benefits for business and revenue.
If you can successfully argue that the new program will be aligned with your organisation’s strategy, you’ll have a higher chance of getting it approved because you will convince the ultimate decisions-makers that this isn’t just the right thing to do but it’s the smart thing to do.
“It’s being able to make the case of if we do this, if we support this group of people, this group of women, it’s going to be better for the organisation in so many ways,” says Whiteford.
“We’re going to keep this group of people, so it’s better financially for the organisation, it’s better for the profile, it’s better for retention.
“It’s one thing to have the morally and ethically correct argument for why you do it but then you have to translate that into institutional strategy.”
The rest of this series can be found here:
Introduction: ‘The Mentee’s Manifesto 2019
Part one of the Women’s Agenda Mentee’s Manifesto: How to build a support network of mentors, sponsors, coaches, personal cheerleaders and more
Part two of the Women’s Agenda Mentee’s Manifesto: How leading women at the top of their game have worked with mentors and sponsors to get there
Part three of the Women’s Agenda Mentee’s Manifesto: How to land a mentor and work with one effectively