Over my career, I have been the beneficiary of the wise counsel, constructive criticism and honest feedback of several mentors – both formal and informal. It made a big difference in the tangible results of my career (position, compensation) and in intangible ways (sense of purpose, confidence). Once I reached a certain point in my career, I was faced with the choice to be a mentor myself. It was time to give back.
Mentoring is a big commitment. There are many issues to consider before agreeing to be a mentor. The most obvious issue is time. Can you make the hard choices necessary to find the time? Finding time in an already packed schedule to meet a mentee at regular intervals is a challenge. You will need to commit to seeing the mentee often enough in regular intervals to build a healthy, trusting relationship.
You must also consider your willingness to share your knowledge and experience. You will need to be open about the successes and the failures that lead you to be where you are today. Can you be open? Your mentee does not need to know where all your skeletons are buried, but you do have to be willing to open up. Sharing with a mentee is not always limited to strict business talk. Some of the most potent mentoring conversations are around the intersection of business and personal life. Being forthright about the work/life balance choices that you made and why personalizes the discussion. You should not be pontificating about “When I was your age…” or dictating actions, but relating your experience in similar situations. Of course, we all hope others can learn from our mistakes; so, sharing what you wish you had done differently is impactful. However, you must be willing to admit fallibility.
If you feel you can make the commitment, you need to find a mentee that has a comfortable level of compatibility with you. It is best to not have someone who is too like you. ook for someone with whom you have chemistry. Differences spark discussions. There is more mutual curiosity. There is also a higher potential for mutual learning. In the best mentor relationships, the mentor learns too.
Establish the rules at the beginning of the relationship. Come to an understanding about how frequently you will meet. It should be often enough that the relationship feels comfortable, the conversation flows freely, and the business issues are fresh. If the time between visits gets spread too wide, there is too much “catching up” on old issues. If the time is too often, there is not enough to discuss. As the relationship matures, the frequency can change. In addition to regular meeting, set up a policy about contact between meetings. If something comes up that the mentee wants to discuss and time is of the essence, would you be willing to have an impromptu meeting? Would you mentor through a crisis in real time? Or would you prefer the mentee to use the skills you have worked on together to get through this on her own, then discuss how she did at the next meeting.
Ideally, these meetings would take place in person in a setting that is comfortable for both parties. Some people are fine talking in a conference room or the mentor’s office; while some people can focus better offsite. Not all meetings need to be in person. I have enjoyed very successful mentoring relationships that occurred strictly over the phone and video conferencing.
Confidentiality must be discussed upfront. If you’re a mentor through a company sponsored program, you don’t have to worry about giving away company trade secrets. However, you will be discussing issues sensitive to the mentee. Furthermore, you will be sharing some of your personal life. Be sure you know your company’s policy on confidentiality. Will you be required to share any of your conversations with the mentee’s boss? With human resources? What will you want the mentee to keep confidential? Have this conversation at the onset.
So what makes a good mentor? The same qualities that make a good leader make a good mentor. First and foremost, you must be a good listener. You have set aside this time, now you need to stop thinking about the work you left on your desk. Forget about your “to-do list” and focus on the person across the table. Listen, ask questions, listen some more. Get a good understanding. As a mentor, you will spend much more time listening than you will talking.
Be a role model for your mentee. Part of your job as a mentor is to show the mentee how it is done. Be on time for your meetings. Be prepared by refreshing your memory about the previous meeting prior to the new one. Ask follow-up questions about the previous meeting’s conversation and action plan. If there are any “to do” items for you that come out of your meeting, be sure to do them. Be a person who honors her word. Expect the mentee to honor his. When speaking of others, be constructive, not negative or derogatory. If your mentee sees you as be mean-spirited towards those not around, she will wonder how you speak of her when she is not present.
Be honest. Give feedback and criticism, but give it constructively. Mentors hear things from co-workers about their mentees that may not mesh with what the mentee is telling them. You need to gently bring up the differing view point so the mentee can see how he is being perceived by others. This is a safe relationship in which the mentee can examine with you why some missteps occur and how they might be rectified now and avoided in the future. You can deliver the gift of hard feedback because you also provide an open and caring forum for dealing with it. Honesty should be a two-way street. Your mentee may not bring up criticism of you. You should periodical ask “How is this relationship working for you? What can I do better?” Be willing to get as good as you give.
Be patient. It can be hard to watch your mentee make mistakes, especially ones you made on your own journey to your current position. Your wisdom comes from experience (including failures and mistakes). No amount of mentoring will spare your mentee from making their own mistakes (but hopefully, they won’t make as many). You are helping them blaze their own path, not follow in your footsteps. Mistakes will be made. As a mentor, you can help dissect what went wrong, what went right, and what is the “take away”. You get to commiserate and then reinvigorate for the next challenge. Over time, you will help them spot their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. There no quick fixes only well-earned insights and thoughtful adjustments.
Share the glory. Your mentee will probably require guidance at times that you cannot provide. Whether it is a personal financial advisor, a lawyer, a human resources representative, or a therapist, you need to be willing and able to encourage your mentee to find a competent specialist for their need. If it is an internal issue, you can refer them to the appropriate person in the company. If it is external, you can recommend some resources, if you are comfortable doing so. You cannot and should not try to provide guidance in areas beyond your scope and abilities.
Last, be willing to learn. A close, honest relationship with someone on a different level of the company can be a learning experience. You can get a true sense of how the corporate culture filters down to the mentee level. You can find out how information is received and transmitted. What office “politics” your mentee deals with. You can tune into what aspects of the company appeal to different levels and areas. It can be eye-opening, if you are willing to learn.
If you decide to make a commitment to mentoring, your dividend comes in many forms. You are giving back to another member of the company. You are honing your leadership skills. You are garnering esteem from your colleagues and your mentee. You are gaining valuable insights and perspectives from a different level of your profession. You are giving, but you are getting so much.