Thoughts on Mentors and Mentoring

At my last few employers I used to blog regularly and encourage other executives to blog. I will be reproducing slightly modified versions of some of those blog posts here. This one, on the subject of Mentoring, was first published in 2014 and re-published in 2018.

Original post follows

I thought I’d share some thoughts on a topic that has been the subject of several conversations recently: Mentors.

Most people would benefit from having a mentor, and many people would benefit from being one.

What follows are my thoughts on what I think is an important part of management, not specifically on the department’s mentoring program.

… which makes me think it’s worth taking a moment to define what I mean by the term mentor, because I don’t mean just specific processes that may exist for formally having a mentor as part of a professional development program, although those programs are an important part of mentoring.

Graphic showing various aspects of coaching

When I use the term “Mentor”, I mean any process of establishing a trusted confidant relationship with someone with whom you can discuss career and life issues and from whom you can receive feedback or advice. The mentor is usually assumed to be senior to you (in age, rank, or experience) but that’s not at all necessary – all that’s necessary is that they have some experience, skill, knowledge, or perspective that you lack, and that they’ re willing to discuss it. I do think, however, that it’s best that your mentor not be in the chain-of-command above you, otherwise the line between giving advice and giving direction gets blurred and confusing.

I sometimes encounter people with the concern that, “so-and-so would be a great mentor except for this one aspect of their personality that I dislike.”

This is one of the key things about making good use of a mentor: realizing that it is not about copying the person in question, and most certainly not about copying everything about them. Learn their perspective or habits on things, then take what you like and ignore what you don’t.

It reminds me of the theme of a classic set of old Jokes, which go along the lines of

“go meet so-and-so, find out what they would do, and then don’t do that.”

Those are good jokes but probably not useful advice because not doing something is not an action (or not a usefully specific one), and not doing a thing is no guarantee that you will avoid an outcome that happened to someone who did that thing. So, plan to use your mentor to help you work out what you’re going to do, not what you’re going to not do.

Since I’m emphasizing that the relationship doesn’t have to be formalized and bureaucratic, maybe I’m using the wrong word. Maybe I mean muse or role model or inspiration.

In fact, they don’t even have to know they’re your role model – you can observe and learn from someone without their knowledge. That, I think, would be outside any reasonable definition of “mentor”. Maybe the word “mentor” should at least be restricted to the cases where the coach is a knowing and willing participant in the relationship. Anyway, mentor will do.

Use Mentors Well

Two people having an in-person discussion

Of course, just having a mentor won’t actually do much for you. You need to use the mentor. Some thoughts on using your mentor well:

  1. Build a Relationship: Ask the person in question if they’re willing to be your mentor. They’ll probably be flattered, they’ll probably say yes, and they’ll probably help set some expectations about how available they can be and what they may or may not be willing to discuss. As part of this conversation, be prepared to explain “why them?” What are you hoping they can do for you?
  2. Expect confidentiality, and give it in return: It goes without saying that you’re expecting your conversations with your mentor to be confidential – but that means you need to do the same, and not share with others things they share with you unless that’s clearly OK.
  3. Someone being your mentor doesn’t make your career development their problem. Don’t sit back and wait for them to call you with advice – you need to take the initiative to book meetings, bring up topics, and ask for help and advice. (As an exception, they may have agreed to watch for certain types of opportunities for you, but you initiated that and it needs to be clearly understood.)
  4. Have regular meetings and give them advance warning, if possible, of what you’d like to discuss so they have time to prepare thoughts. But expect schedule pressure – frequent rescheduling, etc. Mentoring you is competing with operational pressures for the use of their time. A person with few demands on their time, who is readily available, and whose schedule never changes, is probably not the one you want as a mentor.
  5. Don’t necessarily expect advice. Sometimes just having an intelligent person listen attentively, and perhaps ask some clarifying questions, while you describe a situation you’re struggling with is all you need.

Be a Mentor

Mentor/Mentee conversing

On the other side of the coin, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to be a mentor when you can

  • Managers: it’s your job.
  • Non-managers who are experts at something: it’s your responsibility.
  • And everyone: it’s good for you. Ask anyone who teaches or coaches, especially if they teach adults, and they’ll tell you they learn as much or more from the relationships as their students.

Senior and experienced people are probably already mentors and good at it. For people who are new to being a mentor, I offer some thoughts on this role:

  1. Establish ground rules. What can your mentee (is that a word?) expect from you? Promise confidentiality but not concealment – if you learn something that you must deal with, you don’t want to have promised that you won’t.
  2. What you’re initially offering is availability not advice. Your mentee may not need anything more than an audience or a sounding board.
  3. Listen actively. Ask clarifying questions, and ask questions that may lead the mentee to think of their situation in different ways.
  4. Offer advice if asked. If not asked, ask for permission first.
  5. Make it personal. They came to you for a reason. What has happened to you that is relevant, what have you done, what might you do in this situation?
  6. Don’t mess up the chain of command. Don’t let mentoring meetings become out-of-band channels for business decisions. You are offering advice and guidance for employee development, not influence peddling for business decisions. This is why I generally discourage mentors from being in the reporting line above their mentees – it’s too easy for advice to be taken as overriding an intermediate manager’s direction.

Things I’ve Learned from Mentors

I’ve had some good mentors who have made a big difference to my life, more to follow.

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