Boyden Executive Search

Mentors reap tangible and intangible rewards, with one study revealing that they experience higher levels of career satisfaction and success. Karen Kosiba Edwards of Boyden United States shares her perspective on leadership and effective mentoring.

By Jason Wingard

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Earlier this week, “The Voice” announced that Taylor Swift would be its latest “Mega Mentor,” offering her guidance to contestants during the knockout rounds that begin airing in October. Swift, who is one of the most successful recording artists in history, has filled this role once before: during the seventh season in 2014. 

“She cares about the artists — that’s what I loved about working with her the first time,” coach and pop star Kelly Clarkson told PEOPLE. “I loved that she actually cared and invested. She was really into it.”

Mentorship, of course, is not only for entertainers. Its benefits extend across all industries—and to both mentees and their employers. A meta-analysis of academic studies suggested that individuals with mentors experience better career outcomes than those without, for example, and a Deloitte survey found that millennials intending to stay at their organization for more than five years were twice as likely to have a mentor (68%) than not (32%).

Mentors also reap tangible and intangible rewards, with one study revealing that they experience higher levels of career satisfaction and success. Excelling as a mentor, however, does not come without effort. If leaders wish to have a positive impact on their mentees — as, it seems, Swift has had on “The Voice” — they should follow these steps. 

1. Practice Empathy

According to Anthony K. Tjan, who spent years researching mentorship for his book Good People: The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters, mentoring can often “evolve into a ‘check the box’ procedure instead of something authentic.” “For real mentorship to succeed,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “there needs to be a baseline chemistry between a mentor and a mentee.”

That requires mentors to practice active listening as they gain insights into their mentee’s experiences and perspectives. “Effective mentors display empathy at all points in the relationship journey,” wrote business strategist Martin Roll. “It is important to constantly understand, evaluate, and feel the mentee’s situation… Without this understanding, any form of feedback and guidance may sound disparate, unrealistic, and in many instances, impractical and irrelevant.” 

One of the co-founders of Google Maps, Lars Rasmussen, provided this type of empathetic mentorship to the young founder Melanie Perkins. “A key moment for me was when I first met with [Rasmussen],” Perkins told Marie Claire. “Until then, I hadn't considered that people who start huge, world-changing companies could be normal, lovely people. It radically changed my perspective and the scale of my vision.” Perkins’ company, the online graphic design program Canva, is now valued at $1 billion. 

2. Keep an Open Mind

Even if a leader believes they hold the secrets to success, they need to be open to alternative approaches when serving as a mentor. They need to remember that their role is to offer guidance, rather than directives. “One of the biggest mistakes that mentors make is that they forget (or choose to ignore) that different people have different ways of doing things,” wrote Foti Panagiotakopoulos at Growth Mentor. “Because of that, they can stifle innovation and originality.” 

This philosophy extends to whom leaders choose to mentor, as well. “I think in any organization, people are more comfortable with people with similar backgrounds, perspectives,” Karen Kosiba Edwards, a partner at Boyden executive search firm, told CNBC.

“Those are the easiest people to choose, mentor and promote. But what’s easy is not necessarily going to make you a leader or a winner in the kinds of challenges that we’re all facing today. I think we’ve all gotta stretch ourselves a little bit.”

Steve Reinemund, the former CEO of Pepsi, adhered to this advice in his mentoring of Indra Nooyi. Though they were opposites in many ways — with Bloomberg reporting: “Nooyi likes to joke around; Reinemund is all spit and polish” — his mentorship helped Nooyi rise through the ranks to become one of the Fortune 500’s only female CEOs. (After 12 years at the helm, she stepped down last year.) “If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today,” Nooyi said at the 2008 Catalyst Awards. “I’m a product of great mentoring.” 

3. Demonstrate Commitment

While it might seem obvious, this last step can prove easy for harried executives to overlook: Mentors must be committed from the beginning. As W. Brad Johnson, a professor who studies mentorship, told The Atlantic: “If there is one variable that shows if mentorship relationships are likely to take off or not, it's frequency of interaction during the first several months of the relationship. I find that very often mentors are so busy that they may notionally commit to mentoring somebody and then never follow through. And I think an absent mentor, somebody who never responds, can be profoundly toxic.” 

In addition to dedicating their time and attention, mentors should commit to furthering their mentees’ goals — even if they do not align with those of the company. “The best mentors avoid overriding the dreams of their mentees,” Tjan wrote in the HBR. “If an employee and a job aren’t a good fit, or if an ambitious employee realistically has limited upward mobility in a company, a good mentor will help that employee move on.” 

One mentor who remained committed to her mentee over the span of decades was Maya Angelou. The writer and activist famously served as a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, who reportedly said: “[Angelou] was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life.” Winfrey credits mentorship as fundamental to her success, saying: “I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship. Nobody makes it alone.” 

If leaders want the opportunity to serve the next generation of Winfreys and Nooyis, mentoring can be a powerful experience — one that impacts the lives of both their mentees and themselves. As Kathy Hochul, New York’s lieutenant governor, told The New York Times: “I want [my mentees] to have a more expansive view of their potential. And to me, mentoring is all about letting them see and then helping them find the path to get there.”

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