Women Seeking Mentors: 5 Questions to Ask

Of all the resources professionals have at their disposal, a mentor is arguably one of the most helpful. Articles, books, and trial and error can be great teachers when you're navigating your career, but nothing can replace advice from someone who has been there before you.

"The guidance of a mentor can be very important," said Rachel Martinez, founder of the Are You Kidding sock company. "Many times, it is helpful to learn from others' mistakes, or from the right choices [they have] made."

LourdesMartin-Rosa, American Express OPEN adviser on government contracting, agreed, noting that the real-life experiences mentors can share will help mentees create a better path toward success. [Need a Good Mentor? Here's How to Find One]

"A mentor will help build leadership, value and character," Martin-Rosa told Business News Daily. "Having someone guide [you] and provide expert advice [on] the day-to-day business challenges is extremely beneficial."

Strong mentorship can provide an advantage for any professional at any career level, but for female professionals, especially those in leadership positions, a mentor can make all the difference. Such advice can help in overcoming the many gender-related challenges that women still face in the modern workplace. Asking for a raise, delegating tasks and honoring parental commitments all tend to be rewarded when men do them — but if women do the same, they're viewed as needy, incompetent and uncommitted. Professional life coach Vittoria Adhami said that these types of deeply ingrained societal biases, along with a lack of self-confidence among female workers, can set women up for failure in their careers.

"Some of the challenges women encounter in the workplace don't necessarily come from their working environment, but rather from within," Adhami said. "We are our worst enemy. We have all the qualifications we need to do the job, but we don't believe we can perform. Men feel positive about being able to do the job until they are told they can't. Women start with thinking they cannot do it until they are told they are doing a good job."

Nola Hennessy, founder and CEO of Serenidad Consulting, added, "Women are still expected to 'support' the professional men, even though the man and woman may have the same qualifications and experience and work alongside one another. The subservience that women have been working their way out of through the centuries is still a mindset that has been strongly programmed into both men and women."

If a female executive struggles with these mindsets, it's easy to see how she could struggle even more with being an effective leader. With the guidance of a trusted mentor, women can learn to overcome the internal and external factors that hold them back, and go on to successfully grow in their careers. Here are a few questions female professionals should ask themselves to help find the right mentor.

Do I look up to this person?

First and foremost, you should ask yourself if you admire this person for her or his achievements and industry experience. Your mentor should ideally be someone who shares your professional outlook and perhaps has even accomplished the goals you hope to achieve.

"Think of people you are really going to be able to gain something from," said Jayna Cooke, CEO of event venue listing site EVENTup. "LinkedIn is a great source to find people. Somebody you admire and look up to within your space is [best] if you're just starting out."

When you've identified someone you think might be a good mentor, avoid asking the person up front if he or she is willing to mentor you. Cooke advised starting off with an invitation to coffee or lunch, and asking to pick the person's brain about his or her experience to get a better idea of how your professional relationship would work.

"It's a process," Cooke said. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight. You're going to ask a lot of people to find the right fit."

Am I able to work well with this person?

While you may have identified someone who meets your requirements for an ideal mentor, that person may not necessarily serve as a great partner. It's critical to know that you can work and communicate well with the person who's going to help guide your career.

"The mentor must be supportive, communicative, inspiring and must feel that your needs are important," Adhami said. "Know the person well before you ask him or her to become your mentor. Form a relationship first.Even if you think that the mentor you want is very knowledgeable, he or she might not necessarily be able to communicate effectively their knowledge."

If you haven't worked with a potential mentor before, Adhami recommended collaborating on a single project. This will give you the opportunity to find out if you are a good match.

Is this person engaged in the local community?

If you don't have a particular mentor in mind when you begin your search, a good place to start looking is your own local community. Small business owners often have a wealth of leadership knowledge and experience that they're often happy to share with other local professionals.

"Good mentors are exceptional leaders within their own community," Martin-Rosa said. "Not only will they understand your challenges, but the culture and environment within your particular industry or community, as well."

Can this person guide me toward my professional goals?

It's important to remember that a mentor does not play the same role in your professional success as a coach might. Mentorship does not mean someone telling you what moves to make; it's about someone encouraging you to find the answers yourself. Hennessy noted that an effective mentor must be nonjudgmental, an active listener, empathetic and very compassionate, providing advice only when asked.

"A good mentor will guide, not advise; inspire, not motivate; critique, not judge; and share ideas and options, but not do it for you," Hennessy said. "The mentee must be willing to open up to new ideas, act on guidance given, [and] be prepared to adapt and change."

Is this person happy in his or her career?

Being good at something and doing well in your chosen career don't necessarily mean you've achieved success. If a seemingly successful person is working at a job he or she secretly hates, it will show — and that person is probably not your ideal mentor. Seek out someone who truly loves his or her work.

"Look for the person who smiles and is always happy at work," Martinez said. "There's a reason that person is happy. She's obviously doing something right."

Originally published on Business News Daily