As a manager you will have an important and unique role in not only getting results for your department and company, but also in developing the skill sets, the knowledge, and the responsibilities of your team members.
And today, one of the most important of those roles is being a mentor. Many people think that mentoring and coaching are the same. They are not. They are different.
Let’s dive into the essential skills of a mentor but first a definition!
What exactly is a mentor? Let’s look at some definitions. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a trusted counsellor or guide” and notes that it originates from Homer’s Odyssey, where one of Odysseus’ friends, Mentor, is entrusted with the education of his son, Telemachus.
The key notion in this origin story is that the mentor is in a position of trust and provides education. In this definition, the term is synonymous with “tutor.”
Wikipedia has a similar take on mentorship. As they put it, “A mentor is someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.”
In business, the role often involves a little more than that. Harvard Business Review writes that “mentorship is a relationship between someone sharing knowledge and providing guidance (the mentor) and someone learning from that person’s experience and example (the mentee).”
The mentor is someone who has had similar formative experiences to their charge, in this definition. This gives them empathic insight into the challenges their mentee will face. This indicates a deeper relationship than a tutor imparting information or facts.
It seems like the core elements of good mentoring are:
1. A level of seniority and experience in the mentor.
2. The ability and desire to support and impart knowledge.
3. A receptive, less experienced mentee eager to learn.
In other words, it’s a two-way relationship rather than a didactic one. The mentor must be an active participant in the improvement of the mentee. A mentor cannot work with a recalcitrant subject and a mentee won’t benefit from a reluctant mentor.
The mentor is invested in the success of their charge, rather than just imparting knowledge and setting their charge loose upon the world. This makes it a rather high-stakes role. A failure on the part of the mentee will, in part, reflect upon the success or failure of the mentorship.
Mentors are not to be confused with sponsors. Sponsors have a financial stake in their charges’ success since they have brought them into the fold to benefit the company. They will introduce their protegees to their networks and directly support their advancement. A mentor will not go so far; their investment is less commercial in origin or intention.
Being a mentor means being able to communicate with your team members, or those you are mentoring, on a more personal level to help them develop the skills essential to growth and improvement.
Without these skills you will not be able to communicate with or aid in the enhancement of anyone’s performance.
When mentoring, you don’t feed the person with whom you are working with a set of detailed instructions.
You must probe and ask questions about what he does and does not understand.
You’re not a teacher, you’re a guide or a facilitator
If you don’t ask questions and listen to the answers you won’t know what needs to be done next.
But make sure your questions are at a deep enough level to get the person to be thinking in a way that develops their thinking skills.
The purpose here is to ensure they can see challenges in a different way and find answers that maybe others hadn’t considered before.
Naturally, your listening skills need to be in tip-top condition, so you can identify where the feedback your mentee is providing is adequate.
You’re not testing them as such; you’re helping them analyse situations and determine, through your keen interest in them as a person, where their development areas still exist.
These are important because you must be able to see and understand what the person you’re mentoring is currently doing and/or is capable of.
Observing what a team member is doing now may throw up some ideas about what they can do in the future.
It helps you establish the gap between where they are now and where you potentially see them being in the future.
Observe how they handle problems.
Also, watch how they use their communication skills with others.
By observing them, you notice where their strengths and development areas are, and you build up a picture of how mentoring can assist them in tapping into potential for improvement.
These will give you the tools you need to determine where the person you are working with is falling short and what changes may need to be made.
Thinking analytically is something that can be developed and honed over a period.
You can mentor your team member in helping them to analyse, tackle and sort new information, ideas, challenges, and possible solutions.
Situations where analytical skills can be used could include building organisational skills, troubleshooting problems, setting budgets, researching future opportunities, creating data analysis, running diagnostics, and improving creative thinking.
Mentoring your team member in these skills gets them thinking at a higher level and allows them to show you their value in key areas of the business.
You must be able to give constructive feedback that is helpful.
This sometimes may need to be of a development nature, as not everything the team member does will be the well thought through and adapted to the circumstances.
Having said that, negative feedback isn’t appropriate in most mentoring situations.
You must be able to correct the actions and behaviours of your mentee without making him feel as though he failed at a task.
Have the attitude that there are no failures, only outcomes.
If they can learn from an experience, they haven’t failed; they have learned how to ensure it never happens again.
Remember, the whole purpose of feedback is for the person to learn from the experience and improve their future performance.
Ask the person how they feel they are performing.
Highlight the successes they’ve achieved.
Build their character by mentoring the soft skills they need to be even more successful.
That way, your feedback will be welcomed and anticipated, rather than dreaded and rejected. Some mentors also use 360 Degree Feedback to get a more rounded viewpoint of their mentee’s skills and abilities.
You need the authority of a leader to be a good mentor. After all, who would want to be mentored by someone who is riven by doubt and lacking in seniority? People expect their mentors to be inspiring and charismatic, so that they are pushed to go the extra mile to impress them.
Inspiration is vital to mentorship. Ideally the mentor is the kind of person the mentee would like to be. There will difficulties along the way. A good leader can bridge over these problems and continue to raise their charge’s spirits, making them persevere in times of crisis. Think Winston Churchill, or Richard Branson.
But it’s more than mere inspiration. A good leader demonstrates by example and can help their people to progress and improve. The leader appreciates that the performance of everyone under them reflects upon their own performance. They also know when to muck in and when to stand back and delegate.
Check out our Leadership Development Training for more.
An important aspect of both leadership and mentorship is trust-building. When Obi-Wan Kenobi asks Luke to close his eyes in the 1977 Star Wars and use the force to destroy the Death Star, he’s leveraging the trust he’s built with Luke. That’s a real mentorship relationship bearing fruit. Luke is about to do something others might think is crazy, but Luke trusts his mentor, rises to the challenge, and saves the day.
Back in the real world, the relationship of mentor and mentee must aways be one of trust. The mentee is, after all, learning new skills, some of which may not feel intuitive or likely to work. If they trust their mentor, they will be more willing to take risks.
But trust must of course be earnt, and it is advisable to take baby steps towards such bold moves. Trust is built, rather than assumed. As the mentee sees their performance improve, supported by their mentor, they will grow to trust them more. However, the mentor must seem (and be) trustworthy from day one.
A mentor can achieve trustworthiness by being honest, reliable, empathic, and available. In this way, the trust their subject places in them is likely to grow, and lessons are more readily absorbed.
Some mentees are full of self-doubt. They lack experience and don’t appreciate their own abilities. They may also be subject to a host of unjustified and negative beliefs. For instance: “I’m not going to be accepted in this workplace” or “I’m not as smart or well-educated as my colleagues.”
A good mentor will understand where such doubts come from, even if they had no such doubts themselves. However, everyone has doubts, and everyone has bad days. The mentor should be able to normalise these feelings while explaining why they are not ultimately justified. When a mentee puts themself down, the mentor should raise them up.
Perhaps by using examples from their own early struggles, perhaps by reminding mentees how far they have already come, the good mentor will find a way to overcome these self-set barriers to improvement.
Tied in with the notion of overcoming negative self-image and destructive beliefs is the positive push of encouragement. According to research by Linda Phillips-Jones, who looked at hundreds of mentor-mentee relationships in the 1970s, encouragement is one of the primary role of the mentor.
Says Phillips-Jones, “effective mentors encourage their mentees, which in turn helps increase the mentees’ confidence and enables them to develop.” So how do they do this? Phillips-Jones identifies several methods of positive reinforcement including offering meaningful compliments, recognizing milestones reached, and identifying positive traits within the mentee.
The “encouragement” of a sergeant-major is not what is called for, but more the gentle pushing of a supportive parent. Encouragement entails active recognition of achievements; a curt nod of the head probably won’t cut it!
On a practical level, the mentor should help the mentee build structure into their improvement. This can be done by setting some concrete goals, deadlines, and milestones. It must be done in collaboration between mentor and mentee, rather than something onerous imposed upon the latter by the former.
As much as possible these should be shared goals, framed as “we should have achieved X by Y date,” to emphasise that the mentor claims ownership of the task as much as the mentee.
As well as helping your mentee focus upon a particular area of improvement (rather than loading them with too many challenges at once) you must be able to focus too. You need to commit to providing an agreed upon frequency of number of contacts per month, be prompt in responding to enquiries and available for emergencies.
This is no small commitment, from both parties, but much can be achieved by “chunking down” the task in hand into a series of milestones. Rather as a marathon runner doesn’t think about the full 26 miles, they have to run but may break down a race into 5-mile segments, a mentee can look towards achieving just the next stage in the process.
Learning how to support this kind of structured improvement is one of the best ways to improve your mentorship.
We have already touched upon this in the section on leadership, but it bears emphasising. No matter how accomplished a mentor might be, unless they have the ability to inspire their mentees, they won’t succeed. All of the learners on our Management Apprenticeships have an inspiring mentor to help them navigate their programme, to keep them motivate and inspired.
Inspiration can come from engaging in inspiring acts. It can come from exposing mentees to other sources of inspiration such as industry leaders or champion salespeople. Wherever you find it, inspiration is one of the chief purposes of mentorship. This is because when a mentee feels inspired, they are prompted to try harder, to live up to the inspiring example they’re given.
You can also provide mentees with inspiring books, articles, and news stories, to help suggest they kind of examples they might aspire to.
An essential part of understanding what your mentees are going through is being able to put yourself in their shoes, because you’ve been there. That’s empathy in a nutshell.
Being empathic is demonstrating an ability to understand another person’s perspective from behind their eyes. It’s a key skill in general and it is especially helpful in mentoring because it allows you to relate your own experiences to others.
Ideally you are an empathic person to begin with because this skill can be nurtured but is difficult to develop from scratch. Fortunately, empathy something 99.99% of us have innately – it’s why we wince when another person bumps their head.
In mentoring, when a problem arises, the first thing we must do is engage our empathy to ask how this must feel to the mentee, who might be facing it for the first time.
Mentorship is not necessarily a smooth and straightforward journey. Speedbumps and near collisions may occur along the road. To avoid these stymying the process, mentors are great problem-solvers. Indeed, this may be one of the most powerful functions a mentor can provide – a sounding board for mentees in crisis.
The first thing to do is to encourage your charges to take a step back, breathe, and realise that they have options. Things are rarely as disastrous as they first seem. Then, mentors can use their own experience and knowledge, without prescribing, to present examples of how similar situations have been handled.
Good mentorship is not telling someone what to do; instead, it’s giving a mentee the tools and understanding to find their own way out of difficulty. Working together, the ideal mentor is someone who encourages their charge to problem solve.
Communication skills are of course a must – an inarticulate or tongue-tied mentor will not be able to convey either their knowledge or enthusiasm for the task at hand. The most important shape this communication will take will be in one-to-one and face-to-face communication, of course.
The fine line to walk is delivering truthful observations without demotivating your charges. A common technique for doing so, for example, is the “praise sandwich,” where you begin with one complimentary observation, dip into some corrective feedback and finish on a second positive. This eases the mentee into the tough stuff easily and leaves them on a high.
The ideal mentor will be able to nurture relationships long-term and may even be able to put mentees in touch with other inspirational or helpful people. However, this latter aspect is more properly the role of a sponsor, as we’ve seen.
The main relationship to nurture is, of course, the one between mentor and mentee and to make this work, there may need to be some forbearance on the part of the mentor when the mentee fails to listen or put into practice the advice given. Mentors cannot hold the hand of their charges; nor do they have any disciplinary function. Instead of using such “easy” tactics they can only encourage and support.
Which brings us to the last item in our list.
Every mentee has a different background, expectation, personality and set of circumstances, not all of which will be immediately obvious. Mentors should be slow to passing judgement if a mentee doesn’t immediately see the value of a lesson that they feel is obvious.
Being non-judgemental means taking extra time to listen, and to make allowances for charges who may have different time constraints, or who may come from highly pressurised backgrounds. There may well be something you’re missing when you rush to judgement.
Provided the relationship between mentor and mentee is strong and built on trust, the latter will tell the former what their constraints are, given gentle encouragement to do so.
We hope that was useful. Please contact us to discuss the Management Training Courses and Management Development Programmes that we provide. We offer off-the-shelf as well as bespoke, customised solutions.
Updated on: 9 August, 2022
Originally published: 17 February, 2018
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