by Allison Pollard
I discovered that the first successful mentor was a woman—the goddess Athena, actually—when I was doing research for our Mentorship program. Reflecting on the story of Athena-as-Mentor and the experiences shared by Women in Agile’s mentors revealed an essential part of being an effective mentor: adapting to your mentee’s situation.
The Limitations of Advice-Only Mentoring
Many mentoring calls start with the mentee sharing a topic and asking their mentor for advice on it. The two of them explore the topic in an ad hoc way for the rest of the call. The mentor may suggest further reading or send resource material afterwards. The mentee hopefully sees more options available to them, is clearer on their next steps, and feels better about their situation by the end of the conversation. They may continue with this approach for majority of their calls.
My colleague Paul Tevis calls this the “Monster of the Week” format, resembling the TV format where a villain appears for only one episode and is defeated. The repetitive format can become less interesting over time. Depending on the “monster” that is brought by the mentee, the mentor may feel under-equipped to provide insight right away. Worse yet, the mentee may reject options as they are named, which can cause the mentee and mentor to both feel stuck.
Thinking of the mentor as primarily an advice dispenser reduces the mentoring relationship to be more transactional in nature. A strong focus on providing potential solutions can make it difficult for mentoring to continue when the mentee inevitably struggles to take action between calls or is facing confidence challenges in her workplace. As a mentor, it is useful to know other approaches to supporting mentees.
Structuring Mentorship Calls to Develop Skills
In The Odyssey, the goddess Athena undoubtedly heard Telemachus’s pleas for her to intervene. While his father was away, suitors came for his mother, ransacked his house, and took his wealth. Rather than swoop in and resolve the situation herself, Athena shows up to Telemachus using various disguises (including that of Mentor, a family friend) and guides him in a variety of ways: by dispensing advice, sometimes by deflecting spears, and even helping find a crew for his ship. Her tactics shifted based on the situation at hand.
While Women in Agile’s mentors are not goddesses, it’s hard to not put them on pedestals for their experience and achievements. They have steered agile transitions while navigating the workplace as women. Their bios are impressive and show why they are internal leaders in agile organizations. Through our mentor power hour events, they learn and share ways to adapt to their mentee’s needs.
When the mentor and mentee are able to look at longer term goals and skills to be developed, it becomes easier for the mentor to suggest alternative meeting structures. Women in Agile mentors have conducted mock interviews with their job seeking mentees. They have shared creative ways for mentees to set and track their personal goals. Mentors and mentees have experimented with how frequently to communicate, shorter vs. longer sessions, phone vs. video, and sharing email updates and resources between calls.
Mentoring can take a wide variety of forms that go beyond advice-giving. Mentors use their expertise to help create opportunities for their mentees to grow. Collaborative working sessions can help mentees make progress that might seem otherwise impossible on their own.
Growing Women Leaders in Agile Organizations
Women in Agile’s mentee applicants have a variety of professional goals, but many share something in common: confidence challenges. Workplaces are making it difficult for them to succeed and thrive, in ways big or small.
The image of the all-knowing and all-powerful mentor, guiding and protecting her eager mentee is alluring. It’s natural to want advice from a person who is a wealth of knowledge and experience. However, it can limit what they are able to provide in the moment as mentors and neglect longer-term growth for a mentee.
Ultimately, mentorship helps women grow and trust themselves as leaders. Mentoring relationships that adapt to the situation can equip mentees and mentors to better navigate and change their workplaces.
About Allison Pollard
Allison Pollard is a coach, consultant, and trainer who focuses on creating alignment and connection for people to solve business problems together. She engages with people and teams in a down-to-earth way to build trust and listen for signals to help them learn more and improve. Allison currently volunteers as program director for Women in Agile’s mentorship program. She is co-owner of Helping Improve LLC.