Over the course of my career, I have been the beneficiary of the wise counsel, constructive criticism, and honest feedback of several mentors—both formal and informal. It has made a big difference in both tangible ways (position and compensation) and intangible ways (sense of purpose and confidence). Once I reached a certain point in my career, I was faced with the choice of whether to be a mentor myself. It was time to give back.
But mentoring is a big commitment, and there were a lot of issues to consider before I agreed to do it. If you are thinking about becoming a mentor, you'll want to give careful consideration to these issues, too.
The most obvious one is time. You will need to commit to seeing the mentee often enough to build a healthy, trusting relationship. But finding time in an already packed schedule to meet at regular intervals is a challenge. Are you willing to make the hard choices that will be necessary to find that much time?
You must also consider your willingness to share your knowledge and experience. You will need to be honest about the successes and the failures that led you to be where you are today. Your mentee does not need to know everything about your personal history, but you do have to be willing to open up. Sharing with a mentee is not always limited strictly to business talk. Some of the most powerful mentoring conversations are about the intersection of business and personal life. Being forthright about the work/life balance choices you made, and why you made them, personalizes the discussion.
However, you must be willing to admit fallibility. Mentoring sessions are not opportunities for you to pontificate about "When I was your age..." or for dictating actions; rather you should relate your experiences in similar situations. Of course, we all hope others can learn from our mistakes, so it can be helpful to talk about what you wish you had done differently.
Making a good match
If you feel you can make the commitment, then find a mentee who is compatible with you and with whom you feel comfortable. While you should look for someone with whom you have "chemistry" (that is, you have similar ways of thinking and feel a sense of camaraderie), it is best not to mentor someone who is too much like you. Differences spark discussions. When there are differences, there is greater potential for mutual learning. In the best mentoring relationships, the mentor learns too.
You and your mentee should also establish some 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 visits are too far apart, you will spend too much time revisiting old issues. If the meetings are too frequent, however, there will not be enough to discuss. As the relationship matures, the frequency can change.
Ideally, these meetings should take place in person and in a setting—either an office or conference room, or offsite—that is comfortable for both parties. But mentoring meetings do not always have to be in person. I have enjoyed very successful mentoring relationships that occurred strictly over the telephone and through video conferencing.
In addition to regular meetings, 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 his or her own, and then discuss how well he or she managed at the next meeting?
Confidentiality must also be discussed up front. If you're a mentor through a company-sponsored program, you don't have to worry about giving away proprietary information. However, you will be discussing issues that are sensitive to the mentee. Furthermore, you will be sharing some details 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? Be sure to establish clear rules at the very beginning of your relationship.
How to be a good mentor
What makes a good mentor? The same qualities that make a good leader. 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 and focus on the person across the table. Listen, ask questions, and then listen some more. As a mentor, you will spend much more time listening than talking.
Be a role model. Part of your job as a mentor is to show the mentee how to conduct this type of relationship. 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 any "to do" items come out of your meetings, be sure to do them. Honor your word, and expect that your mentee will honor hers or his. When speaking of others, be constructive, not negative or derogatory. If you are mean-spirited toward those not present, your mentee will wonder how you speak of him or her in a similar situation.
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 mentees are telling them. You need to gently bring up the differing viewpoint so the mentee can see how he or she 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 hard feedback because you also provide an open and caring forum for dealing with it.
Honesty should be a two-way street. Recognize, however, that your mentee may not be comfortable criticizing you. You should periodically ask, "How is this relationship working for you? What can I do better?" Be willing to take criticism as much as you give it.
Be patient. It can be hard to watch mentees make mistakes. No amount of mentoring will spare them from making mistakes. You are helping them to blaze their own path, not to 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 "takeaway" message. You get to commiserate with them and then reinvigorate them for the next challenge. Over time, you will help them spot their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. There are 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 should be willing and able to encourage your mentee to find a competent specialist if needed. If it is an internal issue, you can refer the mentee 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 who is at 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's level. You can find out how information is received and transmitted. You can learn 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 while gaining valuable insights and perspectives from a different level of your profession. While you must be prepared to give a great deal, you will end up getting so much in return.