Strong mentorship can provide an advantage for any professional at any career level, but for female professionals, especially those in leadership positions, a mentor can make all the difference. A mentor's advice can help in overcoming the many gender-related challenges that women still face in the modern workplace.
"Women need mentors because we need support to stand in our power. Mentors provide a mirror for our strengths and offer guidance toward creating the future we want," said Carin Rockind, a happiness and life-purpose expert. "Mentors remind us of who we are and empower us to feel confident in our path."
Lourdes Martin-Rosa, an American Express OPEN adviser on government contracting, agreed, noting that the real-life experiences mentors can share will help mentees create a better path toward success.
"A mentor will help build leadership, value and character," Martin-Rosa told Business News Daily. "Having someone guide [you] and provide expert advice [on] the day-to-day business challenges is extremely beneficial." [Need a Mentor? Here's How to Ask]
Why mentorship matters for women
Some of the challenges women encounter in the workplace don't necessarily come from their working environments, but rather from within, said professional life coach Vittoria Adhami.
"We have all the qualifications we need to do the job, but we don't believe we can perform," Adhami said. "Men feel positive about being able to do the job until they are told they can't. Women start with thinking they cannot do it, [and continue to think so] until they are told they are doing a good job."
"Women don't toot their own horn as much as men," Rockind added. "Girls are often raised to believe that it's not polite to speak about yourself. So many women wait to be recognized and then are frustrated when they aren't."
With the guidance of a trusted mentor, women can learn to overcome the internal and external factors that hold them back, and go on to successfully grow in their careers. Here are five questions female professionals should ask themselves to help find the right mentor:
Why do I look up to this person?
First and foremost, you should ask yourself if you admire this person for her or his achievements and industry experience. Your mentor should ideally be someone who shares your professional outlook and perhaps has even accomplished the goals you hope to achieve.
"Think of people you are really going to be able to gain something from," said Jayna Cooke, CEO of event venue listing site EVENTup. "LinkedIn is a great source to find people. Somebody you admire and look up to within your space is [best] if you're just starting out."
When you've identified someone you think might be a good mentor, avoid asking the person up front if he or she is willing to mentor you. Cooke advised starting off with an invitation to coffee or lunch, and asking to pick the person's brain about his or her experience to get a better idea of how your professional relationship would work.
"It's a process," Cooke said. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight. You're going to ask a lot of people to find the right fit."
Am I able to work well with this person?
While you may have identified someone who meets your requirements for an ideal mentor, that person may not necessarily serve as a great partner. It's critical to know that you can work and communicate well with the person who's going to help guide your career.
"The mentor must be supportive, communicative [and] inspiring, and must feel that your needs are important," Adhami said. "Know the person well before you ask him or her to become your mentor. Form a relationship first. Even if you think that the mentor you want is very knowledgeable, he or she might not necessarily be able to communicate effectively their knowledge."
If you haven't worked with a potential mentor before, Adhami recommended collaborating on a single project. This will give you the opportunity to find out if you are a good match.
Is this person engaged in the local community?
If you don't have a particular mentor in mind when you begin your search, a good place to start looking is your own local community. Small business owners often have a wealth of leadership knowledge and experience that they're happy to share with other local professionals.
"Good mentors are exceptional leaders within their own community," Martin-Rosa said. "Not only will they understand your challenges, but [they will also understand] the culture and environment within your particular industry or community."
Can this person guide me toward my professional goals?
It's important to remember that a mentor does not play the same role in your professional success as a coach might. Mentorship does not mean someone telling you what moves to make; it's about someone encouraging you to find the answers yourself.
Nola Hennessy, founder and CEO of Serenidad Consulting, noted that an effective mentor must be nonjudgmental, an active listener, empathetic and very compassionate, providing advice only when asked. The mentee, in turn, must be willing to open up to new ideas, act on guidance given, and be prepared to adapt and change, Hennessy said.
Is this person happy in his or her career?
Being good at something and doing well in your chosen career don't necessarily mean you've achieved success. If a seemingly successful person is working at a job he or she secretly hates, it will show — and that person is probably not your ideal mentor. Seek out someone who truly loves his or her work, said Rachel Martinez, founder of the Are You Kiddingsock company.
What if your mentor says no?
Any time you ask people for their time, there is a chance they will say no. It's possible they are too busy and don't have time, or maybe they're going through something personally and can't take on another item right now.
"If a mentor says no, it means there is someone even better for you out there," Rockind said. "Ask your friends for ideas, do a Google search for people who do work similar to your goals, or even ask the mentor who turned you down if he or she knows of other [professionals] who may want a mentee."
Rockind suggested asking yourself, "Whom else do I admire? Who else inspires me? Who else can help me?"
No matter whom you pick, a good mentor is someone who believes in you and makes time for you. A good mentor gives you tools, exercises, journal assignments, book recommendations and connections to support you on your path, Rockind said.
Additional reporting by Nicole Taylor and Marci Martin. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.