The most common question I received, after being honored with the prestigious Athena Award for mentoring female professionals in their careers, was how to do it. Other professionals also wanted to pass along their own expertise, or help someone better fill a slot in their company, or they wanted to pay forward the experience of helping someone in their career because they had benefitted from mentoring in the past. But the fact was, they said, they simply didn’t know where to start. Here’s the advice I gave them, and I hope it may be helpful to you, too, as the world truly needs more mentors.
Set ground rules to create a safe emotional place for both participants. Your decision to mentor is as individual as you are. Likewise, the person you’d like to mentor also has their own reasons and motives for participating. Share upfront why you’d offer or agree to a formal tutelage, and clearly frame everyone’s goals, expectations and timeline. Pay special attention to the question of communication – the preferred channels, how accessible you wish to be, and how much feedback you expect. It will foster an atmosphere of trust and help avoid hurt feelings later.
Establish goals and priorities. Good mentoring starts with an exploration of what the protégé wants to be able to do better at the end of the sessions. It’s critical to break the generalities down to specific behaviors. For example, “be better at time management” means little. What specifically should the mentee be able to do to show improvement in this area, and by when? These goals become the foundation of the partnership.
Understand that you are the passenger and not the driver on this journey. Though you’ve been deemed the expert, mentoring should be led by the protégé. To help your mentee develop new skills, ask the hard questions of them. When asked for advice, your best first response is “What do you think you should do?” or “What do you see as your options?” If the person then offers a lame or self-defeating suggestion, don’t sweep it under the rug with your “better” answer; instead, help guide them toward discovering a better option themselves. Success is teaching your protégé how to think logically through difficult situations or problems, considering it from new angles.
Know your role and stay true to it. While a mentor often becomes a trusted friend, it is still important to maintain a professional distance that balances empathy and instruction. Yes, you’ll become a safe place to vent, but you want to then help your student move beyond that toward an action plan. Venting is not action, it’s reflection. You’ll want to help them foster accountability for their response to situations, helping them vet out the most appropriate reaction to their dilemma.
Don’t be seduced by the mentor’s assigned “Superman” status. You don’t have to know everything and, in fact, part of the reason you were chosen is because you’re successful. That means you know how to network and tap into other resources. Referring your protégé to other people for some of their answers or experiences will help them learn this art as well.
Align your expectations for how you want the sunset relationship to be. While I enjoy mentoring, I think it’s most successful when the student “graduates” out of a formal protégé role and into more of a peer relationship with me. That’s our goal from the very beginning, in fact; it’s how I know I did my job.
Still interested in mentoring? I hope so because the person who will benefit most will be you.