• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

The Art of Micro-Mentoring

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If the word “mentoring” makes you squirm, don’t fret. There is an alternative.

By Karen Catlin (Advocate for Technical Women)

For many of us, it happens all too frequently. An uncomfortable feeling, a twinge of embarrassment, when we hear someone say, “My mentor taught me…” or “What I learned from my mentor was…”

We know we should have a mentor, but we haven’t taken the plunge. We’re not sure where to start. Maybe we’re intimidated.

If you feel this way, you’re not alone. There are many of us. Successful in our careers without ever having asked someone to be our mentor. Successful in our careers without having access to an organized mentoring program.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we don’t look to mentors for advice. We do it all the time.

We’re just more casual about it. We practice the art of “micro-mentoring.”

What is Micro-Mentoring?

A few years back, I attended a panel on the value of mentoring. A vice president at a software company shared that he had never had a formal mentor. Instead, he asked for advice on an ad-hoc basis, from people he respected and thought he could learn from. He called it “micro-mentoring.”

Until then, I assumed all successful people had incredible mentors they talked to all the time. What a relief to know I was wrong.

Because, even though I knew it was best practice to have a mentor, I didn’t have one. Instead, I sought out specific advice when I needed it, just like the panelist. And, frankly, my career was doing just fine.

Formal Mentoring

Even so, I’m a fan of formal mentoring programs. They’re organized by companies I’ve worked at, through my alumni organization, and by non-profits. I frequently volunteer to be a mentor for such programs. I’ve seen the impact up close, and it’s positive. It’s also measurable. Research published by the Harvard Business Review shows that women who found mentors through formal programs received more promotions, by a ratio of almost 3 to 2, than women who found mentors on their own.

Micro-Mentoring as an Alternative

But, not everyone has access to a formal mentoring program.

And not everyone is comfortable with finding a mentor on their own.

If you are one of these people, you don’t need to let your career suffer. You can be, like many of us, successful without ever asking someone to be your mentor. You, too, can embrace micro-mentoring.

Here are two tips to get you started:

Be Specific About the Advice You’re Seeking

For micro-mentoring to work, you need to clearly define your ask. Be specific. Perhaps ask them about a time they did something you want to learn about.

For example, many people ask me for advice about how to become a manager, which I find hard to answer because it’s such a broad topic. By contrast, a young woman once asked me how she could get experience managing people while still being an individual contributor. Turns out that she had applied for an entry-level management job and was told she needed to have already managed people before she’d be considered.

I suggested that she offer to train and manage the next intern or temporary worker they hired onto their team. This was a win-win solution: her manager was happy to delegate this responsibility, and she was able to learn how to manage someone. And it worked. Within six months she told me that she’d been promoted and was managing a small team.

Thank Them

To thank your mentor, describe the impact they made. How did their advice make a difference? What did you do differently because of something they told you?

A few years ago, a woman at my company told me she had received a big promotion. She thanked me for something I told her a year earlier and how she had acted on it. That advice, which had been critical to her getting the promotion, was something I only vaguely recalled mentioning. While I appreciated her gratitude, I was most thankful that she reminded me of the advice I had passed along. By doing so, she helped me become a better mentor.

Do you have additional thoughts about micro-mentoring?

Karen Catlin

About the guest blogger: Karen Catlin develops powerful women leaders in the tech industry with leadership coaching and advising companies on how to attract and retain female talent. She has an extensive background in Silicon Valley. Formerly, Karen was a vice president at Adobe Systems, and most recently, the CEO of Athentica, an early-stage startup. Follow her on Twitter @kecatlin and see more of her work at karencatlin.com.