How to Be an Effective Mentor

Have you ever had a mentor? Mentors can take many forms and be as varied as your experiences: a parent, an older sibling, a teacher in high school, a football coach, a camp counselor, a university professor, your first supervisor, a coworker, your current boss, someone you met on a trip, a hairdresser, or that friend with the extra dose of maturity that’s somehow lacking in your DNA. A mentor is someone you look up to, someone who makes you a better you in some way.

Both a noun and a verb, mentor can refer to both a person and an action. Oftentimes, it’s a reflection on maturity and experience, where a more experienced individual imparts some wisdom to those who are inexperienced. An expectation of trust and knowledge is a given. Implications of patience and exceptional listening ability are always part of it. The word itself oozes empathy and respect.

A mentor, in case this needs to be explained, is not a tutor. A tutor, for example, helps you do better in your chemistry class so that you can pass the test. A mentor, besides helping you get a better grade, may perhaps reveal your passion and lifelong love of science. They help illuminate a path that you might not have taken otherwise.

As I’ve grown in experience, I’ve found myself in the role of mentor. At the start of my HR career, I did not expect that so many meeting requests would be for counseling sessions on how to get a promotion, switch careers, get along with an impossible coworker, give positive feedback, or develop new skills. Mostly, I’ve winged it, but you don’t have to. In business or in life, these are, in my opinion, the basic requisites to make anyone a decent mentor:

[Mentors] help illuminate a path that you might not have taken otherwise.

Listening 

Every good thing starts with listening. Pay attention. Don’t impose your thoughts, preferences, or choices on your mentee, but instead catch what they are saying and what they are not. 

For example: Your direct report, Anna, a budding marketing manager, is doing great at her job. She’s discussed a career path with you that may take her to a more senior marketing position. When she helps you with a presentation, you notice that her use of font, choice of images, and general layout never require touch-ups from an art director. While Anna is good at her job, her input is sharper with anything that smacks of design. She has told you she wants to grow as a marketer, yes. But because you have been listening to what her work is saying, instead of suggesting an online course on paid media, you encourage her to offer any free time she may have to the presentation design team and see what develops. Sooner or later, she’s bound to thank you.

Sharing 

Including. The best way to teach a job, any job, is to share. This doesn’t mean inviting your direct report to every meeting, or disclosing privileged, confidential information. But sharing knowledge, resources, and prior experience that allows people a view beyond their pay grade can make them better at what they do. 

For example: When Peter, an analyst, is tasked with extracting demographic data on the client’s email campaigns, he may not need to know more than a few variables to do his job well. But if you introduce him to the client, show him how his work influences the more specialized work that other team members do, explain the reasoning behind a change in assignment, and keep him engaged overall with the big picture, you may soon see the benefits of this approach on the results of his specific, junior-level tasks. You’ll be helping him shine and move up.

Trusting 

Trust takes many forms. Not micromanaging is the most obvious sign of trust in the business world. 

Which one of these scenarios sounds better to you?

Scenario A: “My boss lets me run with my projects, even though her style is very different from mine. She gives me a few parameters, and I do it my way. She questions my choices sometimes, but we talk about it. In the end, she corrects a few things and praises my effort. I’m so excited for my next project.”  

Scenario B: “He hovers as I work, has me change everything to the exact way he would have done it—using his words, not mine. Even though others seem happy with my contributions, he never says anything encouraging. I don’t think I like this job anymore.” 

We all like scenario A better—and so will your direct reports.

Being available  

Availability is key. The student working hard at becoming a writer, the employee you just promoted last week, the guy who told you he wants to move into events management, they are all going to have moments of doubt. They may need to ask you their list of questions over and over again. If they are smart, they’ll understand (and possibly magnify) where they fall short. They will be in a hurry to learn, improve, and excel. And there you’ll be, making the time to listen, perhaps repeating yourself, perhaps acknowledging a new development that needs special attention. 

This is when you’ll dig deep into your bag of tricks and give them the tools to self-correct. “Slow down” is advice that will work for some. “Do it again” might help others. Have them tell you why their latest effort is not as good as it should be. Share examples. Let them in on that very private tip that has always helped you (generosity, by the way, is a gift that keeps on giving). Help them think through the problem. And always keep the proverbial door open.

Being your best self 

Mentoring is an everyday job that everyone can do, whether you’ve been branded as someone’s mentor by the talent management lead in your office or you are temporarily in charge of training the new person joining your team. 

The simple act of showing up to work each morning presents you with unexpected mentoring opportunities. You could perceive every “Can you help?” “I’m not sure I did this right,” “I can’t find … ,” and “How would you do this?” as an unwelcome interruption. Your frown would be correctly understood as an imposition by the interrupters, who’d then most likely avoid you in the future. Or you can stop and listen to their requests, give them your time and expertise, deliver fearless positivity, and make their day. You now have someone who thinks of you as a force of good in their world. 

Everything you do reaches others. If you are the choice team member everyone wants on their project, if people single you out as one who listens with empathy, if they think of you as a great motivator for your team, then you are already leaving a huge imprint you may not even be aware of. 

Perhaps someone will tell you one day that they want to grow up to be like you. That you inspired them to become who they are. That you changed the course of their career for the better. Perhaps they’ll remember your influence in front of the Nobel committee. Perhaps they won’t. Praise for your efforts is not the reward of this job. Witnessing the satisfaction of accomplishment in someone else’s eyes is. As for myself, feel free to thank me in your Academy Awards acceptance speech at any time. 

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