To Mentor or Be Mentored: Everyone in the Workplace Has Something to Teach

Each March, International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity, including professional development opportunities for women, such as mentoring. Stacie Phillips, who is the Vice President, Associate General Counsel for Baxter’s Renal business, a co-founder and former co-chair of Baxter Women Leaders (BWL) business resource group and the leader of the Women in Leadership initiative as a member of Baxter’s Global Inclusion Council, recently shared some personal perspectives on structuring successful mentoring relationships and the value those relationships have in promoting an inclusive and diverse culture in the workplace.

Question: What influence has mentoring had on your career?

STACIE: While I have never had a formal mentorship relationship beyond my managers, I have received much value from my informal mentors and especially in observing those I admire. I’m a visual learner, so I learned a great deal from watching how others conducted a presentation or networked in a room full of strangers. For a while, I’d try to mimic what they were doing until I found my own style. Some of my informal mentors through the years have been examples of what not to do, and I work to apply those experiences to my own daily interactions.

Opportunities for a structured mentorship can be just as impactful, and because I lacked those opportunities, I endeavor to offer that relationship to anyone who approaches me because not only do I enjoy it and think it is important in terms of building a sustainable culture of inclusion and diversity, but I also benefit. I see many advantages in having a 360-degree approach to mentoring, as it creates a more well-rounded learning opportunity for both the mentor and mentee. My philosophy is that we each have something we can learn from each other, regardless of role or title, because of our unique experiences. I frequently seek feedback because I firmly believe there’s something to be learned from everyone.

Question: What does an ideal mentor-mentee relationship look like to you?

STACIE: Candid, frequent communication is fundamental to any mentor-mentee relationship. When mentees ask to meet, I request they come prepared to talk about what’s on their mind. If I understand their goals for the relationship, I can prepare accordingly with the appropriate connections or examples, which optimizes our time together. Generally speaking, mentees may be more comfortable with mentors leading the effort, but I do not see much benefit in that approach. In addition, it is important for mentors to ask mentees the questions that will enable the mentees to discover the answers to their own questions because the answers will be different for every person. This is a constant struggle for me as a mentor because my career involves a great deal of problem-solving, and I am most comfortable when I am answering the question, but I do not think that is what is best in the mentorship context.

An ideal relationship builds a level of trust that will eventually lead to a sponsorship – where the mentor advocates for the mentee for promotions, projects and new opportunities. Though many mentor pairings have the ultimate goal of achieving a sponsorship relationship, it doesn’t happen overnight and it cannot be forced. I have found honesty, transparency and a personal connection in the relationship are the best paths to sponsorship.

Question: How do you view professional development for women in the workplace? Do you see major differences in mentorship between women and men?

STACIE: In my opinion, everyone needs and wants professional development, regardless of gender. At the risk of sounding like I am stereotyping, I have found that my male mentees generally are more comfortable asking for what they need or want, such as to be introduced to a colleague or recommended for an opportunity; whereas generally, my female mentees are more likely to demonstrate their skills and competency hoping I will make those connections as result of observing their talent first-hand.

On the other hand, I have noticed that mentors sometimes approach men and women mentees differently, assuming women want to be mentored more on soft skills, like networking or presentations, and men are seeking exposure to projects or new connections. It is incumbent upon mentors to know and understand their mentees well enough to know what they need and want while being aware of the mentor’s own potential biases, and to aid mentees to move beyond their comfort, stretching them as much as possible while reinforcing self-confidence.

Although mentors have the best of intentions, unconscious bias exists in each of us, which can influence how we approach mentoring and it is important for mentors to be as conscious as possible of biases. People are naturally more inclined to help people with whom they have a personal connection or to whom they have a similarity. Because many workplaces have historically had more male senior leaders, male mentees might have experienced greater benefits in terms of exposure and opportunities. Men and women both need the same things in order to be successful in the workplace. Through the efforts of Baxter’s business resource groups and the Global Inclusion Council, we are raising the awareness of our employees to enhance understanding of our biases, and to recognize and practice inclusive behaviors that support all employees on their career journey.

Question: How do you provide mentorship to others?

STACIE: In addition to what I have said in previous answers, my goal is to be informal in my mentorship discussions to create a more comfortable environment for my mentees. I try to tailor the relationship to the mentee’s goals and personality or style, to the extent possible. I like to learn as much as the mentee is comfortable sharing, and I share quite a lot about myself too, in order to lay a foundation of trust and candor, and from there the conversation naturally progresses.

Question: What do you cite as “best practices” in mentorship?

STACIE: For mentees, it’s imperative to choose a mentor wisely. Whether someone has a trait you want to emulate or a career path you choose to follow, a mentor who resonates with you and your aspirations is what is going to make the relationship more engaging and impactful. As mentioned, it’s also a “best practice” for the mentee to drive his/her own agenda. As for the mentor, it is critical to spend the time necessary to deeply understand the mentee’s motivations and tailor the mentor’s approach and advice to the mentee, so the mentee makes the best decisions for himself/herself.

Of course, the objective of the relationship should be clearly defined by the mentee, but it helps to have a good personal connection too. This probably goes without saying, but mentor-mentee conversations must be confidential in order for trust to build, and it’s important to establish that principle from the first meeting.

Question: What challenges can you identify in maintaining a mentorship?

STACIE: Time management often is the most significant obstacle. It’s understood that both the mentor and mentee maintain busy professional and personal schedules, so it’s important for a regular cadence of connections to be scheduled to keep the mentee progressing, but it also is important for each party to be flexible and understanding of appointment rescheduling and the like.

Changing circumstances can present challenges sometimes, such as the mentee moving to another state, but I encourage mentors to be creative in maintaining the relationship, using Skype or other means to stay connected. Changing circumstances often present the most meaningful growth for a mentee, and mentors can be an important beacon during tough times.

Another challenge is that sometimes mentees outgrow their mentors. The relationship can serve the mentee well for a period and then plateau in terms of what the mentor can contribute to the mentee’s career. I think that is a positive indication that the relationship has worked well, and it’s time for new connections. Of course, staying connected with mentors is important, even when formal mentoring has concluded.

Question: How do you see mentorship align with inclusion?

STACIE: For me, mentorship is one of the best ways to enable a more inclusive environment because when you mentor someone, you demonstrate your willingness to invest time and effort into another person, helping him/her to think critically about his/her career and to work through challenges, which causes the mentee to feel welcome and valued in the workplace, and gives the mentee greater confidence to be completely authentic. That authenticity brings diversity of thought both for the mentee and for those who interact with the mentee.

Several studies now show that diverse companies financially outperform companies with less diversity, in addition to enhancing their culture and ability to retain top talent. Mentorship not only bolsters the careers of those who are mentored, it is one meaningful way to create momentum with regard to inclusion and diversity, which ultimately enhances our ability to drive results, and that is in the best interests of our patients, employees and shareholders.