Women still make up less than a quarter of all STEM professionals, command only 6 percent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, and hold just 21 percent of congressional seats—you get the idea. There’s still a lot of work to do. And from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, the latest suggestion for closing the opportunity gap has been to promote mentorship. But what does that really look like? It can seem like just another corporate buzzword based on the unlikely scenario in which a seasoned professional decides, out of the goodness of his or her heart, to spend time and emotional labor guiding a mentee up the ladder. And that’s a shame, because mentorship truly could be the key to making sure women are represented on screens, in boardrooms, and around Capitol Hill. This month, ELLE asked some of the top-ranking women in tech, fashion, finance, and media to demystify what it means to mentor, whom you should really be turning to for help, and how to level up—with or without a mentorship fairy godmother. No buzzwords, just really good advice.
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The Today Show co-anchors just want you to ask specific questions.
Savannah Guthrie: I think mentorship is a little bit of a corporate buzzword that’s in fashion right now, but it reflects something really important. When you’re starting a job, find out who does the best work, whom you admire, and either ask them questions or just watch them. Why did they get such a good interview? Why is their writing so much stronger than mine? Early in my career, I spent half the time just watching people and trying to copy what worked for them.
Hoda Kotb: When I was first coming up in local news, I found the best reporter
at my station, and at first I just watched. I wasn’t afraid of appearing stupid, and so I asked one woman, “How did you get that sound bite?” and “How did you come
up with that line?” I literally just asked.
SG: I think most people are generous with their knowledge, and they’re flattered to know that you admire their work.
HK: One thing I’ve learned is that people who are stingy with their information can only make it to a certain level. My philosophy has always been, “Give it away! You know something? Tell someone.” There’s room for everybody to do well.
SG: Often one thinks of a mentor as someone older, more seasoned, wiser, but Hoda and I rely on each other. We’re colleagues, and we’re constantly bouncing things of each other and encouraging each other. I do remember once, after a particularly horrendous
performance, being really embarrassed, and a colleague told me, “Remember, you’re never as bad or as good as you think you are.” That’s become a life motto.
HK: That’s good! When I got this job with you, I went through my history and wrote five or six thank you notes to people who’d helped me in different workplaces. You can call them whatever you’d like—they were all mentors and helpers—but they were colleagues, and without them I wouldn’t be where I was sitting.
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SG: Sometimes people come in and ask me for advice, and they don’t really have a particular angle; they just want to spend some time with me. That’s okay, but I
find it’s so much more fruitful if you have a specific question, because that opens up an
opportunity for me to help and share what I know.
HK: Especially if you’re young in the workplace. I’ll be Xeroxing something, and a younger person will come up and say, “I know you have better things to do; let me do
that for you.” All of a sudden, that person has shown that they’re needed, and it opens up the door for more conversations.
SG: Make yourself indispensable, and then people will want to help you. I don’t think either of us would presume, like, “Wow, we really changed that person’s life!” [Laughs] I think people change their own lives, but I hope that we’re approachable and easy to meet with, because we both love talking about our craft. If someone comes to me
and says, “I have a puzzle in this script,” then I can’t wait to solve that puzzle with them.
HK: I think that’s the magic. No matter your age, someone has been there before who knows more than you do. Ask.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of ELLE.