If you’ve made the choice to read this article, you likely are aware of the mutual benefits that a mentoring relationship has for both the mentor and the mentee. However, the challenging part can be knowing where to start, and how to serve as an effective mentor to a team member. It could be that you are participating in (or launching) a formal mentoring program, or it could be that you are just interested in helping more junior members of your team develop and grow. Regardless, following a few key best practices and actively engaging in your mentoring relationship will be essential to helping your mentee grow.
Step One: Pre-work: Understand the importance of mentoring
The benefits to both the mentor and mentee in a mentoring relationship are significant.
Your mentee will have the opportunity to:
● Receive feedback from a neutral party
● Gain new perspectives on business challenges and personal development goals
● Learn more about new areas within the organization
As a mentor, you will be able to:
● Hone your coaching skills
● Gain new perspective by learning about a different part of the organization from a fresh voice
● Help solve problems
● Bridge new relationships
Because the benefits to both parties are so important, the mentor must take time to prepare for the relationship by ensuring they are invested in the process and ready to commit to the relationship. There are several things the mentor should consider in advance of the relationship beginning:
● The frequency in which they can commit to meeting with the mentee
● The modality in which they’ll be most effective at mentoring, eliminating distractions and staying focused on the mentee
● The timing that best fits their schedule, availability and focus
The mentor should also consider what they need up front from the mentee to better understand their roles and goals, and request that information early on to start preparing for the relationship.
Step Two: Understand where your team member is coming from
At the onset of the mentoring relationship, the goal of the mentor should be to understand where the mentee is coming from.
● What are the mentee’s goals for the mentoring relationship?
● What do they want to accomplish?
● What problems are they trying to solve?
The mentor should connect with the team member to understand their point of view.
Step Three: Allow for failure and learning
As the mentor and mentee relationship builds, it is important to create a culture of safety. A mentoring relationship is meant to create challenges to develop the mentee. With true challenges, failures will occur. The mentor should be there to assist the team member with troubleshooting the errors that occurred and identifying the necessary steps to move forward.
This allows for a cycle of continuous learning and growth. As new challenges present themselves, the mentee can continue to explore new approaches and solutions, and will continue to learn and develop, with a supportive mentor available for feedback and guidance when necessary.
Step Four: Have your mentee explain what they are thinking
When an issue or failure occurs that the mentor has trouble understanding, the mentor’s first approach should be to seek to understand. Ask the mentee to explain what happened, and where they are coming from. As the mentor, try to connect to understand their perspective and how you can help them to course correct.
Even in situations without failure, this can be a useful strategy to have as a regular habit. Approach your conversations with your mentee with a constant goal to understand their perspective. Then, you’ll be able to offer the most appropriate guidance for their situation.
Step Five: Work to dismantle the sense of hierarchy
Regardless of where the mentor and mentee sit within an organization, a mentoring relationship should be separated from a reporting relationship and should not come with the associated tension of a hierarchical relationship.
When this hierarchical relationship naturally exists based upon the preexisting organizational relationship, the mentor needs to take active steps to dismantle it. The mentee should be given clear grounds to speak freely with the mentor. If ground rules need to be set up related to potential conflicts or legal issues, these should be clearly described up front, so that outside of those guardrails, the mentee can feel comfortable voicing any and all concerns or opinions they may have.
This level of comfort is critical for developing the mentoring relationship and helping the mentee to open up to the mentor. It will also allow the mentor insight and perspective into the mentee’s thought process and problem solving approach, which will grant them greater opportunity to coach and develop the mentee.
Step Six: Allow for risk taking
If Step 5 is fully embraced, Step 6 should naturally follow. As the hierarchical relationship is dismantled, and the mentee is encouraged to be open, honest and transparent with the mentor, the mentee should feel well-supported in risk taking. That said, the mentor should always continue to be direct in this piece of advice, as it is critical to the development of the mentee.
Encouraging the mentee to take risks, while providing a safety net, will help them to grow, learn and, critically, fail. Without failure, the mentoring relationship does not reach peak value. The mentor’s role as a sounding board and advice giver is helpful, but the true role as a coach truly comes in while assisting the mentee in how to respond to and learn from failures and setbacks.
A strong mentor will not only accept these failures as okay, but encourage the risk taking that makes them inevitable.
Step Seven: Take an active approach to being a mentor
In a well-developed mentoring program, the mentee should always be the one accountable for leading the mentoring relationship in the form of setting meetings, establishing agendas, and coming prepared with items to discuss. That said, a mentor must be prepared to take an active approach in the relationship. This can mean different things to different leaders, and also to different mentees.
Draw from the key takeaways in step 2:
● What are the goals of the mentee?
● What are they hoping to gain from the mentoring relationship?
● How does this impact the type of mentor you need to be?
With a new recruit to the company, taking an active approach to a mentoring relationship will likely look very hands-on – introducing the employee to key relationships, identifying challenging stretch assignments for them, and providing direct feedback to them.
With a more seasoned veteran who is looking to move to a higher level of leadership, taking an active approach to a mentoring relationship might require stepping back and allowing the mentee to drive the relationship, so as to not “over-manage” the relationship.
Regardless, the approach should always be in line with the needs of the mentee, and although it is inevitable that a busy mentor’s involvement with ebb and flow, the mentor must commit to a minimum amount of involvement, and not waiver.
While mentoring is critical to developing talent and building pipelines, it is important to have a strong sense of awareness regarding one’s capacity for mentoring. It may be that at one specific moment, you would not have sufficient time and energy to dedicate to a truly supportive mentoring relationship. It is better to acknowledge this and opt out of a mentoring opportunity, than to engage in a relationship without full commitment.
Once a leader has truly committed to the relationship, provides positive support and direction to their mentee, and actively participates in the mentoring relationship, a successful mentoring relationship will naturally occur.