Finding a mentor often comes down to practical considerations like a packed networking calendar and exposure to those already in your desired or chosen profession. It also has a lot to do with fostering your emotional intelligence, as well as your comfortability and persistence in following up with new connections. There already exists a lot of resources online dedicated to these ideas, so we are going to avoid regurgitating easily google-able listicles.
A more important question we are interested in answering is how do you discern if a particular person is going to be a good mentor for you? A lot of young people only consider one thing when trying to find someone to fill this role in their lives: is this person successful? If there is a second thought, it usually surrounds the idea of similarities: does this person have a similar background to me?
Unfortunately, these two considerations are not enough, and perhaps even misguided. Check out our suggestions for future protégés below.
Look for deep-level similarities
For a truly successful relationship, we recommend the relationship be based on deep-level similarities such as their values, goals, or interests instead of surface-level characteristics, such as their gender, race, or ethnicity. Those from underrepresented groups often seek those they perceive as similar to themselves (women want female mentors, racial minorities want mentors of the same race) because they perceive them as having similar previous experiences. The thought here is that they can appropriately coach you through specific challenges they themselves may have already faced. But protégés who secure mentors who share similar goals, interests, and values often have a higher chance of success in their work-related outcomes.
While we are not suggesting that the culture and meaning directly derived from someone’s race or ethnicity is insignificant, we do suggest not immediately assuming someone will be a good fit for you based on these factors alone.
One of the main reasons that women have a harder time obtaining senior leadership positions in male-dominant industries comes from the lack of coaching and grooming that they receive. Women in these careers have been found to benefit from mentorship significantly more than gender-neutral careers in terms of compensation and career progress satisfaction. Many people assume that when women are exposed to powerful female role models, their chances of success are higher, but this may not be exclusively true in presently male-dominated fields, such as law or banking. A study by Aarti Ramaswami demonstrated that mentoring was most effective for women in male-dominated industries with powerful or influential male mentors. This suggests that the effect of mentorship on career outcomes varies among industries in which mentorship takes place. So, if you are a woman trying to find career success in areas like law, finance, or even the military, having a male mentor may ultimately help you in ways not previously assumed.
Don’t stop at just one
The research also shows that having multiple mentors is most effective for career advancement. This is because the different types of support that mentors can provide can collectively help protégés advance in their careers in different ways. Female mentors have been found to provide valuable psychological support to their protégés, whereas male mentors have been found to provide more career-related support. When looking at enlisted soldiers the Army, for example, having both male and female mentors predicted greater reenlistment intentions compared to having only a male mentor.
Determine if they are an ally
Many studies show that mentorship can provide employees of underrepresented groups with opportunities to overcome demographic barriers in career development. However, as concerns around a lack of gender diversity in professional settings have grown, separately, so have concerns about inappropriate behavior from typically senior men towards the women who work for or with them. Some men in power have decided to abstain from mentoring women out of fears about the #metoo movement. 60% of male managers in the U.S. say they are uncomfortable engaging in common workplace interactions with women, including mentoring, socializing, and having one-on-one meetings.
However, to increase workplace outcomes for women in male-dominated fields, these interactions are necessary. If you are a female open to having a male mentor, we simply suggest avoiding potential male mentors who feel threatened or actively retreat from opportunities to work directly with women. Cross-gender allyship in the workplace is completely possible and should be welcomed in order to advance the careers of women.
The same can be said about racial and ethnic minorities within certain fields. Determine if your potential mentor has advocated for those in underrepresented groups before; have they previously mentored people of color? Do they have a diverse group of people on their teams? Any signs of solidarity can be a great indicator that this person will do whatever they can to support you in your career.