Essential Strategies to Unlock the Power of Mentoring – for Mentors, Mentees, and Everyone In Between
Mentoring is one of the most powerful developmental activities and relationships we can engage in. It has certainly become so for me in my own growth over the last few years. However, it is also one of the hardest to tap into, and for many reasons. For one, the time commitment needed to invest in meaningful mentoring relationships is often at odds with our busyness and the overwhelming demands at work. Thus, mentoring tends to be placed on the backburner…and remain there because work never becomes less busy. Second, I believe many of us have a too-narrow view of mentoring and what it could look like, though there are many faces to mentorship. Further, we easily become lazy in our mentoring, taking an unstructured approach versus a more engaged structured one.
But there is a third common barrier to enjoying successful mentoring, and it is fear.
Fear that we cannot be effective mentors. Many of us ask, how do I mentor?
Fear of being selfish as a mentee, that we are not worthy of taking senior leaders’ time. We often worry, how do I be a good mentee and not be a burden?
And we may know mentorship is important, but as an organizational leader, we don’t know where to start. We lament, how do I unlock the power of mentoring within my organization? I am only one person and am not even in a position to affect the change needed to integrate mentoring into how we work.
Who Has a Stake?
Mentoring is based on a learning-focused relationship; there are two essential variables to it – learning and the relationship. Learning alone is not mentoring. That can occur over many different activities like reading, attending or watching lectures, signing up for classes, and so on. But simply a relationship, absent of learning, is not mentoring either. That is like just going to get coffee to catch up with a friend. Mentoring requires learning through intimate, meaningful relationships.
Relationships are dependent on the inputs of the members engaged in them. Mentoring relationships, specifically, have three influential participants: the mentor, the mentee, and organizational leaders who support these relationships. Every member has important responsibilities to fulfill to make mentoring successful, as well as many opportunities to unlock the power of this important developmental activity.
You likely play one if not multiple roles within mentoring relationships. So, to supplement my arguments for the many faces of mentoring relationships and for structured mentoring – below are essential strategies that you can consider when moving forward with (or initiating) mentorship.
There is a lot of great research published about mentoring; it is certainly a science and an art, and we need to be informed about the science. However, I also believe that we can overcomplicate the science, adding even more barriers to leaders filling mentoring space. I think we can simplify mentoring to help leaders feel comfortable entering this space. Here are some things I keep at the top of mind as a mentor.
Framing Mentorship. As a mentor, I tend to frame my thinking around two simple ideas, both of which I read long ago. First is a summary of mentorship in two sentences from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, The Power of Moments. In it, they say a good mentor communicates that, “I have high expectations for you and I know you can meet them. Try this new challenge and if you fail, I’ll help you recover.” Second is a newspaper clipping that I came across from a 90s New York Times article that captured mentoring in three simple steps: (1) listen, (2) share what you know, and (3) repeat. I often fall back on these perspectives as I manage my mentor approaches and how I try to add value to the learning relationship.
How do I know I’m ready to be a mentor? You come into being a mentor not through seniority (there are plenty of senior leaders around us that should not be mentors) but through curiosity – personal curiosity as a life-long learner and a desire to instill curiosity in those around you too. So, like all new skills or habits, start small. Start through a micro-mentorship opportunity, gradually transitioning to a short-term relationship when you feel comfortable, and so on.
Well, how do I mentor? We will all have our unique, authentic approaches, leveraging different types of relationships and various levels of structure…which takes practice. But some common things you can incorporate into the relationship include:
- Set parameters for the relationship at the start. This is especially important to set your mentee’s expectations. When will you meet, how often, and what is the scope of your relationship?
- Set learning goals to focus and guide development. Use them to frame conversations and creating plans of action for growth.
- Attend to learning and the relationship. As stated earlier, one variable alone is not mentorship. You should genuinely care for and invest into the mentee, as a professional and a person.
- Normalize, make space for, and make feedback acceptable within the relationship. And it should flow two ways; you as the mentor can (and should) be learning too. You need to set the tone regarding seeking and accepting feedback in the relationship.
- Assess and develop the mentee’s readiness to learn. Consider how you assess if a mentee is ready to learn. What does a readiness to learn look like? What is the expectation to learn? And how do you continue to nurture a desire to learn in them?
- Consider how often you ask questions vs. how much you talk during your mentoring meetings. I tend to find the less I talk, the better the conversation and the learning. But I still struggle with this too. Think about if there is a regular check-in question that you can use to assess and appreciate the mentee’s current circumstances and their headspace – a question like, “what is on your mind today?” is a way to initiate that.
- Try a mentoring communication challenge – can you ask a question before you make a statement or give advice to the mentee? Think of a question as a vehicle to understanding; seek to understand then be understood (meaning your advice you offer). While coaching is distinct from mentoring, mentors can use coaching strategies to create great conversation and learning that is led by the mentee.
It took me many years to successfully use mentoring for my development because I felt that I was not worthy of senior leaders’ time, that I was being selfish and potentially unprofessional in requesting time to talk to them about my desired learning. But then I got a taste of being a mentor and it all clicked for me. I love hearing from mentees about their updates and success (and failures). I will always find time to talk to them when they ask. Maybe my worries about being a mentee are a bit unfounded…
As a mentor, I care that you care. While I value your unique perspective, your experiences, what you look like, and where you came from, those are not the reasons I choose to pour into you as a mentor. I mentor you because you care.
So, what do mentors expect of mentees? I believe there are four basic things:
- A willingness to learn – curiosity, seeking feedback, and a commitment to improving.
- Trust and openness. Transparency, vulnerability, and care are essential for legitimate growth.
- A willingness to get out of your comfort zone and stretch.
- To listen, and sometimes shut-up, even if it is something you don’t want to hear.
Though I argue that mentors need to bring structure to the relationship, mentees must bring a lot to it as well. To maximize your learning and the impact of the mentoring relationship, consider bringing a few things to the table in addition to the expectations above: deliberate self-assessment and some measure of self-awareness, your developmental goals, and your identified developmental needs and/or challenges.
Also, bear in mind that one mentor cannot be all and do all for you. There will be boundaries within every mentoring relationship – things you focus on and things you don’t address. Consider having something like a “bench of mentors” or “a board of mentors,” each one offering development in a different and relevant area of your life, work, and leadership.
Finally, it is important for mentees to be intentional in giving back to their mentors; mentors make a big investment and often sacrifice other things to do so. I encourage you to explore three simple ways that mentees can give back to their mentors – through updates, gifts, and feedback – in this article (which I wrote with my mentor!).
For Organizational Leaders
While the actual learning occurs within the relationship between mentor and mentee, organizational leaders are important to create a nurturing environment for mentoring to thrive in the workplace and in teams. Leaders need to be champions for mentoring because, simply, mentoring is inclusion in action.
How can you help champion mentoring in your organization, regardless of what level you serve? There are few practical ways that, though they may seem minor, can create significant waves.
- Role model and demonstrate the value of mentorship. Mentor and be mentored. Talk about what you learn and how you are growing through your relationships with others.
- Celebrate mentoring. Encourage mentors for their investment in developing others. Celebrate any significant accomplishments or growth that occurs through a mentoring relationship (like a goal achieved). These don’t have to be grand gestures either. Sometimes, a simple hand-written note of recognition and appreciation can go a long way to encourage continued behaviors.
- Hold other leaders accountable for mentoring. Ask questions during your one-on-one meetings like, “how are you contributing to the developmental culture of our organization?” or “how are you helping others learn?” You can also ask, “what have you learned recently from a mentoring relationship?” Questions like this can be simple, but powerful nudges to get other leaders engaged in championing mentoring.
But be aware of two specific trends. First, be aware of poorly designed organizational mentorship programs that tend to “pair and pray” – pair mentors to mentees in some hasty manner and simply pray that it works out. This is not creating a supportive environment for mentoring to thrive. Second, be aware of criticism in the organization that is couched as mentoring. Signals like this deteriorate the perception and impact of mentoring, especially among more junior mentees. Address these issues when you see them to help cultivate a strong mentoring culture.
Now what? Well, this modest piece certainly does not offer everything needed to make you successful in mentorship. But I hope it is a start to equip and even inspire you to take a step toward engaging in mentoring – whether it be for the first time or to push you into deeper, more intentional relationships. But successful mentoring takes practice; it is just as important to get out there and get started as it is to read and learn more about it.
There is no right way to mentor, but there are common mentorship pitfalls to be aware of as you move forward.
- A failure to connect and establish a strong, intimate relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Forming the relationship usually needs to precede the learning.
- Failure to show vulnerability, especially as the mentor.
- The temptation for mentors to fix things for the mentee through the relationship. It is much more impactful to create space for learning than to merely fix it yourself (“let me tell you what I would do”).
- Falling into the pitfall of developing a protégé, where the mentor asserts that their path to success is the way to go and directs the mentee toward that specific path. The relationship ultimately is based on the mentor’s projected goals rather than the mentee’s own desired goals. This is not mentorship; this is manipulation and cloning.
Lisa Fain, CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence taught me that there are three characteristics to mentorship: reciprocity, co-creation, and learning. She offered that learning is the purpose, the product, and the process of mentoring. It broadens your perspective, and it creates connection and inclusion, helping everyone feel seen, heard, and valued within the organization. I hope you feel a bit more informed, empowered, and encouraged to tap into mentoring and unlock its incredible developmental power.
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