I confess I never really thought about mentoring – as a mentor or a mentee – until a few years ago when I was asked to be a mentor to someone. It was a rather formal professional invitation, part of a professional development program. I agreed to be matched with someone, and duly awaited my mentee’s introduction.
At this point in my career, I hadn’t formed a good impression of the process of mentorship. A few years earlier, someone who I didn’t know very well (and didn’t especially admire) offered, without invitation, to mentor me. We were assigned to work together on a strategic planning exercise, and in one of our first meetings they outlined to me the great benefits of this opportunity for me to learn from them. Mm-hmm.
It didn’t work especially well. Not because I don’t think I need to learn from others - far from it, I learn from others every single day. I didn’t work because it wasn’t invited. The proffered mentorship created a strange and largely unworkable relationship, mostly due uninvited nature of it (why would I want to learn how to be more like someone I didn’t want to emulate?) but also because of their misinterpretation of mentorship (a.k.a. mentee as acolyte or servant). Needless to say, we’re not connected on LinkedIn.
So when it was my chance to be a mentor to someone, I definitely did not want to be “that” person. Being a mentor is a privilege - to be acknowledged as someone with the experience and skill that someone might want to learn from and emulate, makes one both proud and humble at once. It’s also a responsibility – how you do it can influence a person and their career, so you better do it well.
My three main priorities when mentoring:
- Practice what I preach – it cannot be a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. A mentor should base their guidance on their own experiences, and be able to share anecdotes and examples of how they approached issues and solved problems that align with the mentee’s emerging experience. Not to say that my way is always the right way, but being able to describe a real situation and its resolution enhances both the credibility and the utility of the guidance given.
- Listen, ask questions, repeat. The best way for anyone to learn is to figure things out for themselves. A mentor provides the best learning for the mentee by listening to their questions and issues, forming a clear idea of the lesson, and then asking more questions to lead the mentee to the answers. Providing insight based on experience, as well as anecdotes as lessons, help to illustrate principles and good practices, but ultimately you should want to help the mentee figure out the approaches that work for them and, even better, how to figure those things out on their own.
- Mentorship is a project – it should have a plan, and ultimately an ending. It can be a long-term relationship, but as anyone moves and grows in their career, their needs will change. Neither the mentor nor the mentee should feel obligated to continue if there’s no longer anything to teach or learn.
To me, the most effective mentorship occurs when both mentor and mentee choose to work together. Much like most effective relationships in any setting, both parties have to be in it together, and to see some individual and mutual benefit.
An interesting wrinkle in the relationship occurs when the mentor is also the supervisor. It’s important for the mentor to maintain clearly when they are putting on their supervisor hat, such as when the conversations become about performance, discipline or company policy. But as a supervisor, providing mentorship opportunities should be part of the required activities. Those who work for you are also your responsibility – being accessible and providing staff with an engaging should be standard procedure. A bit like common sense, though – actually, pretty uncommon.
Although the supervisor-as-mentor relationship lacks one of the key elements – choice – it is still an effective environment for mentorship, as long as it’s something that both supervisor and employee want. Not all employees want your mentorship, but supervisors should be open to providing it when they do.
Mentorship provides the opportunity to guide and support developing professionals through the various angles and avenues of career profession, and can cover a wide range of objective and subjective parts of a mentee’s growth and learning. Unlike an apprenticeship, where there are specific skills and knowledge to impart and tests to pass, mentorship is a safe and nurturing environment because the subjects can be expansive, and there are no tests.
There is mutual benefit. The mentee should gain from the expertise and experience (dare I say wisdom?) of the mentor. What does the mentor get out of it? In additional to the tips and tricks and new ideas that I take away from mentoring, the most obvious thing to me is the opportunity to give back – to contribute to future leaders and developing (dare I say younger?) managers. A key lesson from one of my leadership favourite, Ernest Shackleton, is “leave a legacy”. Part of that is passing on lessons learned and experienced had to those who can use them to shape their own styles and careers, setting an example for the mentors of tomorrow.