We both sat there awkwardly. Two strangers thrown together. As the mentor, he felt obligated to start. But it was clear that he didn’t know what to say. He finally started by asking me about my background. I spent some time summarizing my career and asked him about his. He gave me a digest of his career in response. The conversation prompted some questions from me. Soon we actually had a nice dialogue going.
That is essentially how one of my mentoring relationships started early in my career. I was new to the organization. So they paired me with another employee who had more experience and a few years with the firm.
He was never given any formal training; no mentoring on mentoring if you will. They just kind of threw us together. They expected the young guy to ask questions when I had them. They expected the experienced guy to share whatever knowledge he thought was appropriate.
In the end, it worked out fairly well. He shared some things that helped me along the way. But it could have been more productive from the start. If he had been given some direction about how to mentor others, we could have hit the ground running and been a lot more productive.
Reasons to mentor
Before someone learns about how to mentor, they should have a good idea of the purpose. There are several reasons for someone to mentor.
To share your knowledge is the most obvious reason. Most people who volunteer are interested in helping younger or less experienced people. They can help them by sharing business knowledge they may have that the mentee does not. They can also try to help the mentee get better acclimated to the inner workings of their new company.
They are trying to help the individual, but they are also contributing to the betterment of the organization as a whole. Having collective groups of mentors helping mentees helps to make the entire organization more productive. It also creates a collaborative environment, which increases productivity across the organization.
To mold new leaders. Sharing experience and knowledge with others is a way of leading by example. There are many organizations with cultures that are not open to sharing knowledge. Sharing your knowledge sets the example of working collaboratively and helping others. It’s one of the best ways to teach leadership to people early in their career.
To become a better leader. In addition to teaching leadership to others, coaching and mentoring them helps the mentor to become a better leader. By sharing your knowledge with others, you learn more about how much experience you have and how much knowledge you have gained over your years.
Most people also find it rewarding enough that they want to continue sharing. Additionally, they get a better idea of the areas to which they can best contribute. Mentors can target their advice to the areas where they are most needed.
Ways to Mentor effectively
Once you develop a good grasp on the benefits of mentoring, it’s important to take some time to determine the best approach. Ideally, your approach should be customized to the individual you are mentoring, but certain approaches work better than others in general.
By example. One of the best ways to teach people the right way to do things is to model the behavior. Modeling works whether you are teaching a protégé business etiquette, marketing tactics, or leadership skills. Your mentee will be more likely to follow your advice when they see that you “eat your own dog food.” They will also be more likely to follow your lead when they see it in action and witness its success.
Options approach. Many mentoring relationships consist of one person giving advice while the other soaks it in. When the mentee asks the mentor about a situation, the mentor often tells the mentee what he should do. This may be based on the mentor’s previous career experiences or perhaps his opinions.
The mentee can learn from this. But it is much more effective to allow the mentee to learn how to solve his own problems. The mentor can help the mentee brainstorm a list of options. List out as many options as they can both come up with and identify pros and cons of each. Then, rather than dictating the decision for the mentee, help facilitate his own decision. This will help the mentee solve a problem, and learn how to solve future problems.
Unsolicited mentoring. There are times when someone needs mentoring and doesn’t know it. You may not have been formally assigned to be this person’s mentor. She may not have ask for your opinion. If you feel she would benefit from your advice, there are tactful ways to share your knowledge.
Approaching someone cold and telling them what they should do may not be given a receptive welcome. Whether they know you or not, whether they respect you or not, it should be handled diplomatically.
If you feel someone needs advice, ask her if you can share some feedback. When you provide a corrective action, use the sandwich approach. Compliment the individual on something she does well. Then suggest a corrective action for whatever you think she needs help with. Finally, finish up with something else she is doing well.
This approach encourages the individual to continue doing what they have been doing right and lightens the blow of unsolicited advice out of the blue.
Changing bad habits. Occasionally, you run into a mentee that has had a few years of experience. Perhaps he was taught some things by a previous mentor or just developed some improper ways of doing things. In cases like this, it may require “unmentoring” the individual and teaching him better ways of doing things.
In this situation, it is a good approach to use the sandwich approach described in the unsolicited advice section above. This is usually the best approach to give corrective advice. It is also important to explain why the change should take place. Instead of using the parental, “because I said so” approach, explaining why he should change makes the mentee more likely to change because he wants to instead of because he was told to.
1-on-1 or Collaborative. There are many ways to share your knowledge. That includes the type of setting in which you choose to share it. The traditional approach is to meet in a 1-on-1 format. Here, the mentee can feel free to ask questions, assuming the mentee feels safe asking in front of the mentor, without fear of embarrassment.
It also allows the mentor to spend more personal time with her protégé. The two can delve deep into topics without interruption. They also don’t have to worry whether their discussion concerns others in the room.
A collaborative approach can also be helpful. Encouraging group mentoring allows people to get multiple opinions. Additionally, each person with an opinion can state their case and let the mentee decide for herself. If multiple mentees are present, they get to hear each other’s questions. This can give them the confidence that they aren’t alone in their ignorance. It also takes away any stigma of mentoring, making it more of a group discussion.
Approach and Attitude
Critical factors in the success of any mentoring relationship is how the mentor approaches the mentee, and the attitude the mentor has with mentoring. If you treat mentoring as a burden that you don’t have time for, your mentee will sense it and it will strain the relationship. In order for both of you to get the most out of mentoring, you need to approach it with the right attitude.
Prioritize mentoring. You may have been assigned to be a mentor without having any choice in the matter. You may feel overwhelmed with your current workload. But mentors can gain as much from a mentoring relationship as the people they mentor. Make it a priority and give the mentee the time he needs. It will enhance the quality of work for both of you.
Change your assumptions
You may think that mentoring someone who is young and green will draw information from you and provide nothing in return. In reality, members of the millennial generation have a lot of knowledge that they can share with their experienced counterparts. Millennials have an almost innate ability to understand technology, especially when it comes to internet and mobile apps. They understand the business models of the organizations creating them. They also are the largest group of people that use these apps.
They can share their knowledge and experience with current technologies and trends that older workers may not be aware of. If the mentors change their assumptions and listen to the millennial generation, they may learn that the mentoring can go both ways.
Rather than randomly providing advice, it’s a good idea to treat mentoring in a strategic manner. Work with the mentee to determine what he wants to get out of the relationship. It’s also important to perform an assessment of their current knowledge and make suggestions.
Once you have both created a “needs assessment,” you can agree on some goals. With the goals in place, you can develop a plan that allows you to achieve a strategic accomplishment. You will have a destination in mind and a roadmap to get there.
Forget about the title
Mentoring can go to the head of a new mentor. Perhaps for the first time in his career, he has someone asking for his advice. The mentor may assume the role of a boss instead of a mentor. His advice may come off as an order instead of a suggestion. It’s an ironic twist that he loses credibility because of his struggle to gain it.
If the mentor forgets about the title and simply tries to help the mentee advance her career, he will be seen as more credible. Both the mentor and the mentee will get more out of the relationship.
How has mentoring helped or hurt your career development?
I welcome your questions and comments.
Images courtesy of Ambro and David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net