Woman addressing a roomful of people

How to start mentoring others

We often hear about the benefits of being mentored, but many mentors would argue that the rewards on their end are even greater. So how to start mentoring others? 

This is part of the Women’s Agenda Mentee’s Manifesto, supported by Charles Sturt University. This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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 more than 25 years. She has worked with 15 mentees, including an academic living in Palestine facing immense struggle.

“To be someone who was able to say this academic ‘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’, meant she changed her outlook a lot.”

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. And doing that at a relatively young age. So, 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.”

How to find mentees

The best way to get started on mentoring others is to be approachable. Keep the door open so  people can reach out and spark a conversation. You never know who may 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. 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 start-ups.

“Early on in my career, I discovered that I was good at breaking down concepts and ideas for young trainees. 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. For Ambikairajah, 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. 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, as Ambikairajah explained.

“The topic of conversations, the issue that is being problem-solved and the amount of time is guided by the mentee. They are the ones who analyse what it is they want to achieve and direct the discussions accordingly.”

When you get started on mentoring, 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.

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 and were still finishing off a higher degree and yet had high teaching loads, which the junior academics tend to get. 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, and they may have young kids.

“What the Banksia program was able to do was provide them 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, as Whiteford suggests, 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’ Therefore, 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.”

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