Mentoring 101: Why you need people who are on your side

Mentoring 101: Why you need people who are on your side


Are you stuck at a crossroads in your professional life? Have you thought about embarking on a Board career but don’t know who to turn to for advice? Then perhaps you need a mentor.

But what exactly is a mentor, and how will having one help you? Women on Boards’ Claire Braund and My Mentor Program Manager Ruth Jones recently shared their mentoring experiences and tips in an online Information Session on the WOB mentoring program. 

“Mentoring is about becoming more self-aware, about taking responsibility in directing your life rather than leaving it to chance or having someone else direct it for you,” said Claire. 

The term itself comes from Greek mythology when it is said Odysseus left his son, Telemachus, in the hands of Mentor to look after him while he was fighting in the Trojan War. 

“Mentoring is lots of things. But one thing it's NOT; it's not telling you what to do. It’s a light touch. It's building confidence, relationships, trust, and respect.”

Ruth said women often come to mentoring when they are at a transition point in their life and come from a diverse range of backgrounds, professions and situations.

“They might be young women planning their career; women coming back from maternity leave or women coming towards the end of their career who want to plan what comes next. It’s fair to say that anyone can benefit from a mentor whether they are in their twenties or their seventies.”

Why do I need a mentor?

If someone suggests you need a mentor, don’t take it the wrong way. Ruth - who has decades of experience as a mentor and mentee- came to mentoring when she was the director of a non-profit organisation. 

“My Board arranged, as part of my professional development, for me to have first a coach and then a mentor. My first thought was, why does the Board think I need a mentor? I was assured it was not a reflection on me, but an encouragement and intended to be a support for me. And they were absolutely right. It was one of the best work-related decisions or experiences of my life. It transformed the way I interacted with my Board of Directors.

“It changed my relationship with staff and it also had a lot of repercussions for the role I had at the time. I ran a network organisation which had 43 affiliated organisations - many of them new and all of them small nonprofits in their own right.” As time went on Ruth had an increasing role acting as a mentor for the Executive Directors and Chairs of those small organisations.

“It is important to think about why we need mentors early on. We need people who are on our sides.”

What are the benefits of having a mentor?

“The greatest benefit of mentoring is there is somebody who does not have any skin in the game, who can offer objective feedback on what they have heard you say and help you test the assumptions that underpin your thinking,” said Ruth.

“I found that that was most valuable for me in my mentoring experience, that my mentor didn't tell me what to do, but she encouraged me to think about what was driving my thinking. It’s about being given that opportunity for reflection and constructive listening and feedback.” 

She said having a mentor can help you look objectively at where you are heading. “At the beginning of a mentoring relationship I always ask the question, ‘What would success look like to you in six months' time when you’ve come to the end of your mentoring?’ There have been women who halfway through have realized that maybe they need to change directions. They see that perhaps they've been too rigid and inflexible about their future and they start to open up to other possibilities.”

A mentor can also help you:

  • Develop your career plan with an external perspective

  • Help you identify how to achieve career goals

  • Provide support to tackle issues hindering your success

  • Act as a sounding board for ideas and issues

  • Help you develop your networks and networking skills

  • Build confidence and provide encouragement

What is the difference between a coach, mentor and sponsor?

In a nutshell: a coach listens to you, a mentor advises you, and a sponsor talks about and acts for you.

Coaching is quite different from mentoring, according to Ruth. “Coaching is helping you deal with a specific issue or challenge. Whereas mentoring is more an opportunity to test ideas, to have a thought partner to help process what you are thinking and to help you solidify your plans and your take on an issue.”

Claire said sponsoring needs to benefit the person who's being sponsored. “Let's say we're at one of the big banks and there's a fantastic 29-year-old but she doesn't apply for a job because she's a bit uncertain. But her boss says, ‘By the way I've let Tom know you're going to be applying for that job because you are absolutely in the right time for it now.’ So she does apply for the job and gets it. It's about that backing. But it's not meant to be used for the sponsor to pick over the people that they want or used in a paternalistic way or in a way that creates acolytes.”

Ruth had people who were role models in her early working life, who then became her sponsors when they were no longer working in the same organisation.

Claire believes the key to being a mentor is listening for what is NOT being said. “One can learn quite a lot from what people do NOT tell you,” she said.

Can a mentor or sponsor be your boss?

Ruth believes there is an advantage in having a mentor who you have not previously been acquainted with. 

“Part of the issue with in-house mentoring is that there's always the potential for conflict of interest. The benefit of an external mentor is that there's no stereotyping of what this person is like. There is the opportunity to express yourself in a way that you may not feel comfortable doing so elsewhere and know that you are doing so with a person who regards that as a confidence and in a safe, trusted space where you can say things and question things that you may not feel comfortable doing with somebody who is a friend or colleague.”

Claire agrees, and says this is the thinking behind Women on Boards’ My Mentor program, which matches mentees with independent, experienced mentors. 

“That’s one reason that we put together a mentor panel because you can go and look for your own mentors.We had members asking for the support of other WOB members. So we have this structured mentoring process and a structured mentoring process.” 

How does the WOB My Mentor program work?

The program includes an introductory session with Ruth to discuss your goals for the program, the mentee agreement and to find an appropriate mentor. 

“Initially I will ask, ‘what would success look like for you in six months?’ We try to identify what the person is searching for in the mentor experience, then look at our list of experienced mentors and find someone who is going to be a good fit. I then suggest that the potential mentee and mentor have an actual, or these days a virtual, coffee together to see if they might hit it off, because it's important that there's good chemistry and 99 per cent of the time there is.” 

As well as the one hour with Ruth, mentees then get five furtner sessions with their assigned mentor. “We suggest that you do those first six sessions within a six month timeframe because you need to have some positive momentum and not have to pick up the pieces and start from scratch. If you want to continue, there is the option to renew for several further sessions with your mentor.”

Where can I sign up?

The mentoring program is open to Women on Boards Full, Premium & Corporate Members. 

The cost of the program is $2530 (inc GST). Following the completion of the program, mentees have the option of purchasing additional mentoring sessions in packages of three one hour sessions for $1,452 (inc GST) or six one hour sessions for $2,772 (inc GST). Click here to join. 

Keep your eye out for a WOB ‘Meet the Mentors’ event coming up soon. Check the Events page for more details. 

“We do hope that this is the year when you think about finding a mentor because it really will change your life in terms of how you're thinking about it and where you're at. And in these uncertain COVID times it also provides stability,” said Claire.