On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
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Making mentorship meaningful: The power of social capital

“Making mentorship meaningful” is a series of articles highlighting talent professionals from the On-Ramps community as they share their experiences, insights, and tips for developing a fruitful mentorship—inside and outside the office. We encourage you to read the first and second articles of this series as well. 

by Cindy Menz-Erb (she/her/hers)

I have been a mentor in an official capacity for most of my career. I worked directly with youth for about 15 years at various organizations, but as I continued to take on greater management responsibilities I realized I was feeling more and more disconnected from the youth that we were serving. I wanted to be able to connect back to the reason that I was inspired to do this work: working with young people. 

I became a mentor with iMentor and was paired with a high school student in New York through their structured program over the course of a few years, which was very meaningful. I also was the executive director of two organizations focused on youth education and family empowerment, LIFT and CFY (now called PowerMyLearning), both of which had me mentoring my immediate team of staff. Although each experience was distinct in terms of who I mentored and how, I helped most of my mentees focus on navigating their professional growth—such as establishing learning goals, mapping career paths, and job coaching.   

When somebody requests that I be their mentor in some sort of official capacity, I ask myself, “Am I uniquely positioned to be a mentor to this person? If I have limited time to spend with people, how am I determining who I say yes to in that context?” It’s important to me that I do it from a position of support and help lift other voices. In my mind, mentorship is a form of social capital—which can often give way to privilege. You’re connected to people, others connect you to people, and so on. That social capital is often connected to like-minded groups, so how do we open up those spaces to people who typically haven’t had the doors open? For me, it involves helping connect people to networks of professionals that look like them so that they can be inspired, and constantly thinking about how I can ensure that people who have traditionally been marginalized have a seat at the table. Here are some other things to consider as a mentor or mentee.

Tips for future mentors

  • If someone asks you to be their mentor, understand their expectations before you say “yes.” The term “mentor” is vague. If you agree to mentor someone but don’t have an idea of what the person wants out of the relationship, you won’t be setting up either of you for success. So, be sure to ask those questions first. The mentorships that have been most meaningful in my life are ones where people asked, “If you're asking me to play a role in your life, what is it that you're hoping for? What are your expectations?”
  • Break down the perception that, as the mentor, you know everything. Mentorship isn’t solely a question-then-answer dynamic—and often, you may not know all the answers. Making the conversations collaborative will ultimately make the relationship more fruitful. There are a couple ways to do that. I ask to provide an agenda of what they’d like to discuss, explaining that I’ll be doing some research on my own. I also ask questions back to my mentees during conversations—“What do you think?”—as opposed to saying,“This is what you should do.” 
  • Share your experiences—including mistakes—as much as it makes sense to the discussion. Personal experiences can help topics feel more tangible, so long as you bring it back to how this could play out for the mentee. It also serves as a good reminder that mentors are still growing too. I found it really useful to see my own mentors, people who are ahead of me in their career or life experience, share the ways in which they’ve made mistakes and how they’ve learned from them.

Tips for future mentees

  • Consider your goals out of mentorship before finding a mentor. Think about what you want from that relationship, and how you will make sure that you're making use of it and getting what you want. Without asking those questions of yourself first, it’s going to be hard figuring out who could be the best person to mentor you.
  • Take ownership of the relationship and explain your expectations. As a mentee, you're the one seeking this out. Very few people are trained to be mentors and don't always know what they're doing. Sometimes, they’re surprised by even being asked. In order to get you what you're seeking, it’s important to articulate why you’ve sought this person out to be your mentor, and what you’d like to achieve from the relationship.
  • Don’t forget that mentorship goes both ways. Listening, asking hard questions, and sharing experiences can happen on both sides of the relationship. You have your background to draw from too, and that could very well inspire your mentor in a way they hadn’t considered. If you ever feel you can provide some insight, don’t hesitate to do so!

The Takeaway

Mentorship is a real gift. The idea that somebody recognizes something in you and is interested in learning from you goes back to the concept of social capital and the ways in which people move through the world. Thinking about mentorship in connection with inequities, and how you can use your social capital to open doors and benefit others, is so important—as opposed to seeing it as one more thing you have to do or a suck of your time. That perspective is why I chose to be a mentor.