Making the most out of mentorship: Nilofer Christensen's guide to professional development

August 7, 2019 | Daisy Bernard

TomTom's Senior Product Manager explains how to find and build a mentoring relationship

Positive mentor and mentee relationships have the power to transform the industry. In a sector where many women struggle to develop, these relationships are crucial. According to a survey by Indeed, 28% of women are leaving tech careers due to a lack of progression. Companies that provide their employees with mentoring opportunities have a higher retention rate than those that do not, with 79% of millennial workers stating that mentoring programmes are key to their success.

But how can you go about finding a mentor, and how can you make the most out of that relationship? When and how can you become a mentor yourself to guide the next generation of change agents?

Nilofer Christensen, Senior Product Manager at TomTom, has been working at the company for almost five years, working to build the next generation of consumer smartphone applications. She's also the founder of BeanTrails and has taught sustainable infrastructure engineering at the University of Melbourne. In her early career she was formally mentored on a short term basis, and over the years has cultivated sponsors and informal relationships that are mutually beneficial, rather than formal mentors. We spoke to Christensen about her top tips for mentorship.

Nilofer Christensen, Senior Product Manager at TomTom 

Let's start with the basics: why is coaching and mentoring important for professional development?

Each of us have goals, aspirations and things we want to achieve, whether in life or in our careers. Rarely can we accomplish these alone. A strong mentor can help build the required tacit knowledge, the kind that cannot be taught by any other means. 

How do you find a mentor? 

Start by first asking yourself what you wish to gain from a mentor. Too often, I see people ask for a mentor without a clear goal in mind of what they hope to achieve. A simple question like, “Will you be my mentor?” is not enough. This puts the onus on the other person. It’s like saying, “Hi there, will you teach me everything you know?”. That’s an impossible task and shows a clear lack of preparation. If you want a mentor, then put some work in first to define why. What knowledge do you hope to gain or what specific situation do you need coaching for? Then look within your network for the person who is best placed to help you achieve this. Or ask a mutual acquaintance to make an introduction to someone just outside your network. It’s also easier for the mentor to accept your request if they understand why you picked them. It will be a more rewarding experience for them if they can help you to achieve your goal.

In Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, she says that the best way to go about a mentor is "to stop asking for one", as they should be built on mutual connection. This is easier said than done, especially for women and people of colour, whose performances aren't always instantly recognised. Do we need to prove ourselves before we ask for help? 

I agree that mentorship is about building a mutually beneficial relationship. But all you need to prove is that you are willing and open to learning. There is no harm in asking for help if the mentor you pick is equipped, and you are ready to learn. I’ll quote Mr Miyagi here, “I promise teach karate to you, you promise learn.”

A mentor's time is valuable - how can you ensure you make the most out of their coaching while showing this respect?

Mentoring should have a start and an end. It should not be a relationship that goes on into the unforeseeable future. Don’t get me wrong, you and your mentor can, of course, continue to have a long-lasting relationship outside of the confines of mentor-mentee. This then becomes a choice on both your parts. Mentoring can then continue in a more unofficial manner as you both realise that the gains are truly mutual. But to show respect to your mentor, don’t expect this from the get-go. Define a clear goal. And together with your mentor, define a plan to help you get there. Mutually end the mentor-mentee relationship once you are both satisfied with the outcome.

How can a mentee give back to a mentor? 

Show progress. Apply what you have learnt and show the results (success or otherwise) to your mentor. And best of all, pass it on. The best reward is to see someone you have mentored go on to become a successful mentor themselves. 

Mentorship, sponsorship, or both?

This really depends on what stage of your career you are in. Mentoring is particularly useful in the early stages of your career. Or if you have undertaken a career change and are navigating an industry, organisation or role that you have little experience in.

Sponsorship is fantastic when you have found your feet, have confidence in your abilities and are ready for the opportunities that the sponsor will give you access to. Mentorship requires the willingness to learn. Sponsorship requires the willingness to be bold.

What have you learned from your mentoring relationships, and has it affected your career?

I have learnt that there is no such thing as a bad mentee, only a bad mentor. It has taught me invaluable lessons about leadership. You need to build great people, not just successful careers. 

In the age of #MeToo, some men are afraid to mentor women. How would you advise men looking to be allies in mentoring roles?

I understand the sensitivity and fear to a certain extent, but men only have something to fear if they believe that there has to be a dominant and subservient aspect to every relationship. Men looking to be allies clearly believe in gender equality and wish to help achieve this. So if we are equals then what is there to fear? A mentee in your care has everything to gain. The skill level and professional abilities between a mentor and mentee may not be equal, but the level of trust should be. If the trust is not mutual then the relationship will be rewarding for no one.

How do you become a mentor? 

Identify your own strengths. Then look for those who could benefit from what you are good at. Offer your help openly and willingly. Succession planning for your current role is one great way to identify someone who could benefit in a concrete way from your mentorship.

This year's European Women in Tech will feature a mentoring zone

Nilofer Christensen will be speaking at European Women in Tech, RAI Amsterdam, 26-27 November 2019. As well as hundreds of seminars, roundtables and workshops, the conference will feature a mentor/mentee zone to encourage professional development in technology. Register for the conference here.