How To Foster Mentorship In A Small Organization
While in residence at a startup incubator, I witnessed the culture of startups and small organizations first hand within a small petri dish in midtown New York City. It is definitely unique.
An environment like this can make mentoring difficult because you are in such close quarters and depend on your colleagues for everything. One is literally in the trenches full-time, all the time. And the last thing anybody wants is to spend more time with each other to “mentor”…only to be potentially misjudged or misunderstood.
Soon mentorship becomes a nice-to-have when you’re living hand to mouth.
What Is Mentorship Anyway?
The irony is that mentorship can lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness, which is exactly what every startup needs to succeed. But the mistake I see a lot of founders make is to assume they are already doing it or to sideline it as optional.
I think this points to a fundamental lack of understanding of what mentorship is.
“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view.”-Oprah Winfrey
While the above sounds amazing, it’s no wonder that 100% of the young women I spoke to claim NOT to have a mentor. The bar seems too high. On both sides.
In contrast, my thesis and the touchstone for building an online mentor network is: what if mentorship is simply a good conversation with someone you could trust? Could this take the pressure off both sides?
Mentors, who doubt they have the chops to be one, can be who they are and be available if someone wants to talk. Mentees, who are looking for advice, can choose who they want to talk to depending on their situation, industry, or question. All powered by video chat.
So Talking Is Mentoring? I Do That Every Day!
Yes and no. What separates a mentoring conversation from an everyday conversation depends on how you would answer these questions.
As a mentor:
- Did you share something from your past experience?
- Was the question something you’ve struggled with yourself?
- Were you able to offer some practical advice?
As a mentee:
- Did you ask for what you need (advice, perspective, consolation, etc.)?
- Did you feel like you learned something new?
- Can you trust this person to be honest?
If the yes’s outnumber the no’s, then chances are you are well on your way to fostering mentorship at work! If not…
OK What’s Next?
The same filter can be your first resource to rethink conversations to foster mentorship. All without having to institutionalize an official process or program. The only requirement is a desire to try to shape shift what you already do everyday at work.
As a mentor:
- How can something from my past experience inform how I respond to this question?
- Have I struggled with this situation myself? If not, do I know somebody who as that I can refer this person to?
- What practical advice can I offer?
As a mentee:
- What do I need exactly (advice, perspective, consolation, etc.)?
- What can this mentor teach me?
- Can I trust this person to be honest?
Most importantly, listen and ask questions. For any managers out there, remember to let people know that you care about them and their issue before launching into fixing them – which is the de facto mode when you’re under stress and growing fast. I get it.
Over time, these types of conversations build trust and healthier teams.
The beauty of a small organization is that it is an incredible testing ground. It just takes one person to say, “let’s try this” and do it! I think it’s one of the reasons why people love startups, which I believe is more of an attitude than an entity.
Startups imply an openness to knowing that something might not work out, and doing it to the best of your ability anyway because you believe it’s for the greater good.
And mentorship always is.