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Want to Be a Great Mentor? Encourage Women to Lead–Here’s How

Mentoring women is important because we need more women leaders. Here are tangible ways to get started.

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BY Spencer Rascoff - 13 Feb 2018

Want to Be a Great Mentor? Encourage Women to Lead--Here's How

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In's call for men to mentor women highlights a possible backlash from the #MeToo and Time's Up movements: men shying away from mentoring women for fear of being in a situation that could be construed inappropriate.

Research conducted by Lean In and SurveyMonkey found that the number of male managers who feel uncomfortable mentoring a woman has tripled in the wake of the widespread report of sexual harassment scandals in recent months. That's terrible news for women (and for companies) and is a major setback.

Discomfort can't be an excuse to exclude half the workforce from mentorship--that's nonsensical, and it's also just wrong. Leadership fuels mentorship, and the only way to address our underrepresentation of women at the top is for more men to mentor women.

We need more women leaders. Workplaces that employ more women and have more women in leadership roles not only have significantly less sexual harassment, but they also benefit from better performance and better employee policies around family leave and working hours.

I've had the privilege of mentoring some incredibly talented people throughout my career, many of them women. Here are three pieces of advice from my experience:

1. Find someone with a different skillset and background.

My most rewarding mentorships have been with people who've come from entirely different subject matters and career paths. Mentors are meant to be teachers, but the lessons go both ways when someone isn't a carbon copy of you. And differences should extend beyond gender.

I mentored my colleague Amy Bohutinsky, our first communications director for Zillow when we launched in 2006 who today serves as Zillow Group's Chief Operating Officer. Amy is an incredible communicator. Early on I knew she had much more to contribute to the company as we grew, so I invited her to strategy sessions outside her areas of expertise and invested time in mentoring her about other parts of the business and the skills needed to run them. Amy built her own career because she was ambitious and worked hard; my role as a mentor was to help expand her experiences as she grew.

Lessons gained from mentoring often help you become a better leader. Amy is a circumspect and strategic communicator; she's also one of the best storytellers I know. Even today, she continues to help me hone my communication skills and see the big picture.

2. Meet with your mentees at a time that works for them, not just for you.

Who you choose to mentor matters a lot, but where and when mentoring happens is also very important. While experiences like business trips and client or partner dinners are great learning opportunities, commitments outside working hours don't necessarily work for everyone. My advice is to make time for mentoring during the workday - for example, in place of dinner, schedule a lunch.

Amy and I both have families, and in the early years of Zillow those families were young and growing. Keeping work--mentoring included--at work was the best option for both of us because we had other commitments to take care of. That shared experience (and scheduling restriction) had a huge influence on the family-friendly benefits that our workplace is known for today. We learned from each other what we needed to manage our home lives alongside a growing business; because her needs were sometimes different than mine, that shaped our workplace's expectations and policies that were more inclusive of all parents.

3. Remember the difference between mentoring and managing.

As a manager, your role is to paint the big picture, secure resources, remove roadblocks and empower your people to do their best work. Managers focus on performance against a set of business goals and ensuring employees have the right resources, development opportunities and support to achieve those goals.

Mentoring is a different role altogether: A mentor is defined as a wise and trusted counselor or teacher. A mentor shouldn't focus on the employee's short-term performance (which should be high if they're being mentored); mentors should instead focus on unlocking longer-term opportunities, passing on knowledge and making connections that will help their employee grow beyond their current role. This may sound altruistic; it's not. By mentoring, you're doing your job as a leader--which is, again, different from a manager - by developing your future leaders.

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