The value of mentoring


Following the recent HSJ Women Leaders Network event on 8 March, which focused on mentoring, one of our speakers at the event, Dr Helen Woolnough from Leeds Beckett University, has written a blog about the value of mentoring.

When talking to aspiring women about reaching those elusive leadership positions, the advice is to ‘get a mentor.’ It's good advice. Mentoring relationships have been shown to provide a wealth of benefits, including greater career success and advancement, access to (what would otherwise be exclusive) networks and enhanced self-esteem and confidence. But what exactly is mentoring? Who does it help and how do you do it? 

The term ‘mentoring’ is often used interchangeably with other relationships in the workplace designed to assist people in their career development (eg coaching). While some of the functions may indeed overlap, mentoring is a longer-term, development-focused relationship that influences professional and personal growth. Crucially, mentors (the person doing the mentoring) should be outside a mentee’s (the person getting the mentoring) line management structure, to allow mentees to speak freely about their professional challenges and career plans. 

It’s well known that, compared to men, women face individual and institutional barriers in their careers and we know that the ‘leaky pipeline’ is by no means fixed. Mentoring relationships can make a big difference here, by helping women navigate the twists and turns of a developing career. For anybody, but particularly women, it can be invaluable to have someone who believes in you and your leadership potential and is willing to offer support, advice and guidance.

Unfortunately, women often experience more difficulty than men when it comes to finding a mentor. Many women either think they should be, or would simply prefer to be, mentored by another woman. Female mentors are invariably fantastic role models and well equipped to guide other women, but the simple fact is there are less of them to go round. Fortunately, diversified mentoring relationships can be of real value and men often make excellent mentors to aspiring women. Indeed, mentoring benefits both the mentor and mentee and can even lead to mentors becoming ‘change agents’, whereby they facilitate organisational change that can potentially impact on the leaky pipeline. Male mentors in leadership positions are well placed to do this. 

So how do you do it? Careful thought needs to be given to establishing, developing and sustaining mentoring relationships if they are to be successful. Securing a mentor in the first place can be the trickiest part and formal mentoring programmes can help with this. Once in a mentoring relationship, the most successful are those where both the mentee and mentor have a shared understanding of the relationship and where the mentee has invested time in setting aims and/or goals. Not all mentoring relationships work out and it’s important to acknowledge this sooner rather than later, so that both the mentee and mentor can move on and find a better fit. 

One important point to remember is that those who have benefited from a mentoring relationship are more likely to want to mentor others. In paying forward this wisdom and experience, aspiring women mentees become the inspirational mentors of the future, and that can only be a good thing!

Dr Woolnough's book Mentoring in nursing and healthcare: supporting career and personal development, will be released in spring 2016.

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