How to mentor and support other women — and help them succeed

Mar 6, 2020 /

Pat Mitchell is a serial ceiling smasher: She was the first female president of CNN Productions and PBS and the first woman to own and host a nationally syndicated daily talk show. She is also a passionate mentor, and here, she offers practical advice on how to best empower other women.

I’m quite sure I never heard the word “mentor” while growing up in the fifties in small-town Georgia, but luckily, Mrs. Reid, my eighth-grade English teacher, was the mentor who changed the direction of my life. I’ve likewise taken my responsibility to mentor other women — and a few men — quite seriously. In fact, as I tell the organizations with which I consult on the role of women in business, I believe mentoring is one of the strategies that can close the gender gap in leadership in this country and around the world.

Mentoring is one lever we can activate to advance more women in their work, to help them gain access to capital and economic opportunities they might otherwise miss, and to be better prepared for opportunities when they come. I believe that one of the responsibilities of being a woman who is committed to working toward a more just world is being willing to be a mentor when and where needed. All of us — mentees and mentors — are dangerous women in the making or already boldly declared to be in the sisterhood. We need the support of each other at a fundamental level that goes beyond mentoring and even beyond sponsorship.

“Sponsors” are what leading Morgan Stanley banker Carla Harris calls colleagues inside organizations who will speak up for others, who are prepared to be more than a mentor.

Sponsors are our representatives, our agents, our committed advocates. Harris has been using her sphere of influence and her powerful woman’s voice to call for sponsors as well as mentors. “Mentoring,” she says, “won’t be enough to ensure that you’ll get the promotion or the raise you deserve. We need sponsors.” I recommend Harris’s TED Talk (watch it here) for more instructions on how to be a sponsor and how to get one.

These days, I’m committed to being a mentor and a sponsor for other women as a big part of engaging further with my passion and purpose.

How can you be a great mentor? Let me share with you some straightforward, how-to advice from my personal experiences as both.

Being a mentor means matching your skills and interests

Check in with yourself before accepting a mentee. Do you have the right skills to help this person, or will you be running yourself ragged trying to find the answers to her questions? Are you genuinely interested in what your mentee is trying to achieve? If someone looks good on paper but the face-to-face meeting leaves you cold, you’re allowed to say, “I don’t think I’m the right person to help you.” Why waste the mentee’s time with a half-hearted, less connected, or less informed mentorship? Find someone who makes the experience mutually rewarding.

Being a mentor takes time

It’s important to specify your preferred way of connecting (phone, Skype, email, in person, etc.), as well as when and how often you’re available to meet with your mentee. Are you talking about a few meetings — or a long-term mentoring relationship that could last months or even years? This is a chance to set clear boundaries. If you don’t enforce your boundaries, mentoring can quickly become a time suck that leaves you feeling resentful instead of empowered.

Juliet Asante was one of the first mentees assigned to me when I agreed to be a mentor in a program launched jointly by Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference, the Vital Voices Global Partnership, and the State Department. Juliet was a Ghanaian television and film personality who owned her own production company and wanted to learn how to grow her business. This seemed like a good match for my background.

The first time we met, Juliet set down in front of me a single-spaced list of names that covered both sides of a sheet of paper. “During our work together, I would like to meet these people in the United States,” she told me. The list started with Obama and ended with Oprah! How could I not love that chutzpah and confidence?

That began what became a two-year official mentoring relationship, with Juliet coming to New York once a month. We’d talk through specific challenges in managing her production company. I arranged for her to meet with people on her list, walking her through every step so she could make the most of the often-limited time, and I reached out to each professional connection to give them a heads up.

In some instances, Juliet and I rehearsed the meeting beforehand, and I changed her script if it was presumptuous or didn’t indicate enough understanding about this person’s scope of experience or responsibilities. We reviewed the background of every person she was meeting, looking for how Juliet could connect so the meeting would have shared value and the colleague who’d agreed to give up their time might also learn something new or gain a new perspective.

Eventually, I arranged for Juliet to meet and spend time with nearly everyone on her list. Even President Obama, when she was invited to a White House event to recognize this special State Department mentoring program. Oprah was a bigger challenge. We lucked out — Oprah had just established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, her school in South Africa, and she was interested in Juliet’s perspective on the school. They had a productive conversation, although Oprah declined to be on Juliet’s Ghanaian television program. She did agree to a photograph that Juliet circulated on social media and elevated her following.

Relying on my contacts, connections and friends to supplement in areas where my advice is more limited is always a part of my mentoring process. In Juliet’s case, it became an easier decision to connect her with helpful friends and colleagues because I took the time to develop a relationship with her, got a solid sense of her abilities and work ethic, and felt confident that the connection would benefit both parties and Juliet would treat the introduction with the respect it deserved.

Like me, many of you have probably spent years building strong relationships with others. These are your gold; protect them. I had to rein in Juliet’s ambitions and expectations once or twice, such as her request to meet Warren Buffett. You’re allowed to enforce a boundary and say no.

Being a mentor is about suggesting, not instructing

Resist the urge to provide direct advice. Instead, offer supportive advice so that your mentee has the information to make her own decisions, which she’ll then be able to stand by with greater confidence.

Catalina Escobar came through the same mentorship program as Juliet. Catalina had a foundation committed to ending the cycle of violence, unwanted teen pregnancies, and endemic and intergenerational poverty in her home country of Colombia. She’d already served thousands of girls by the time we met.

Catalina wanted specific mentoring on how to raise awareness of the challenges in her country so she could expand her programs to other countries and become a global leader for change. We made a plan to get her a speaking coach so she could put herself forward at global conferences on women and girls. I took her to conferences and introduced her to people, and she began to plan a conference of her own called “Women Working for the World”. It was successful as a fundraiser for her foundation and as a global gathering of women. Now in its fifth year, it has become a standard-bearer for women coming together to share best practices, to form collaborations across borders, and to support women working for a better world.

Catalina didn’t need a typical mentor because she’d already created a foundation, shaped a successful intervention, and proven that her model worked with positive outcomes. What she needed — and this is often the case — were outside perspectives on how to raise awareness and funding, which I was able to provide.

Being a mentor is about asking smart questions, not having all the answers

You will help your mentee more by listening closely and asking questions than by having the answer for everything. I learned this when one mentee spoke up at one of our meetings. “Could you please ask all the questions instead of me?” she said.

“Why?” I asked, a bit taken aback.

“Because I need to know what questions to ask,” she explained. “I can google the answers.”

I see my job as a mentor to help my mentee find her own answers. I’ll walk her through the list of questions she’ll need to ask, problems she’ll need to address, and people she’ll need to talk to. I want to empower her to have the confidence that she can figure it all out, not spoon-feed her the answers.

Not all mentorship ends with a sense of satisfaction

Sometimes, mentoring relationships end in frustration. You pour your heart and soul into mentoring someone, and their project doesn’t get off the ground. Or, the two of you never gel, you hear from others that your mentee overstepped, or you’re not able to provide enough of what your mentee wants or needs.

It happens. And when it does, try to resist the urge to fix it by putting more time and effort into it. Instead, be gracious and say: “I’m so sorry, but I’ve come to the end of what I can offer you.” The more experience I gain as a mentor, the sooner I realize that a particular mentee-mentor relationship isn’t going to be productive or positive, and the sooner I can tactfully pull the plug.

You’re a mentor, not a mother

It’s important to remember that mentees are not your children and mentors are not therapists. This was the hardest lesson for me, because I do tend to fall a bit in love with all my mentees. But I’ve learned to keep marriages and personal relationships off-limits — unless they’re related to their business or social enterprise. Above all, I try to be clear about what I have time to do and what I cannot take on.

As a mother and grandmother, I have to resist mothering because when I don’t, the outcome is a blurring of roles and responsibilities. This hurts my mentee and degrades her sense of agency and accountability. And it hurts me because it takes an emotional toll and eats up a lot of my psychic energy.

Being a mentor can result in lifelong relationships that continue to nurture and empower

It’s not uncommon for mentors and mentees to become collaborators. Courtney Martin is a case in point. I recently led a discussion with Courtney on inclusive leadership at the Makers Conference, the annual gathering whose mission is to lead the modern feminist movement to bring women together across all walks of life, in all industries, to advance the agenda of achieving true equality. I’ve worked with her to curate and host sessions at several TEDWomen conferences, and our StoryCorps conversation about our relationship was one of the most emotionally satisfying experiences of my life.

Sitting in that small room with a mic between us, sharing what we had meant to each other, tears and laughter flowed along with the memories of times shared and differences made in each other’s lives because we came to know each other — first as mentee/mentor but very quickly and very importantly as friends bound by mutual respect and admiration. This is what good mentoring is all about.

Excerpted with permission from the new book Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World by Pat Mitchell. Published by Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. © 2019 Pat Mitchell. 

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This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.