Ask anyone if they want a Mentor and after a few minutes of them thinking about who their own personal “Yoda” could be, they all answer yes. Ask anyone what qualities they should look for in a mentor, for themselves, and the answer becomes a little more convoluted. Follow-up both questions with how they would go about becoming a mentor and you could be waiting for awhile to get an answer back from them.
Being a mentor to someone – whether it be through work, life, sports, etc – is not an easy task. After all, you now have someone looking to you for answers to the questions they have and seeking lifesaving guidance from you on where they should go, what decisions should they make, where should they focus, etc, etc. The questions can be endless.
To top it off, you might be a mentor and not even know it. Sure some positions such as teacher, manager, leader imply that you might be in that position as a result of your employment, but you could have been thrust into this position solely as a result of “being there” or having sat beside a colleague for years or because you took the time to have coffee with that person 3 weeks ago.
Whichever the reason, the fact that you have recognized that you now occupy this role, the problem now becomes – how do you become a great mentor and really help your mentee(s) in guiding them on their path.
When seeking out a mentor, we seek to find someone who is on a similar path as we are. Someone who has gone through the ups and downs of what we have and navigated the uncharted waters. They don’t need to have done it all, but they need to have had some experience in where you are going.
This is an asset for any person wanting to be a mentor. For instance, I could not mentor anyone in the field of drawing as I haven’t really achieved anything of significance or invested any time in this field beyond my own interests. As a software developer, I’ve invested countless hours across varieties of projects and platforms that I could very easily slip into that role providing guidance to junior members of our team.
If you are looking to become a mentor, focus on an area or field where you have experience and knowledge to fall back on. As a side benefit to your experience and knowledge, you most likely would have a network of individuals you could call upon should a problem be raised with your Mentee that they might have suggestions for.
We all have our views on the world and we all have a good idea of what does and doesn’t work in our fields of interest. The Mentor/Mentee relationship is a symbiotic one where it’s not meant to be a completely one-way discussion – “here do this, keep doing this, don’t do what you were going to do”. The goal of the relationship is for the Mentee to learn and grow.
To do this, you must train yourself to listen to their problems and challenges and suggest courses of action that don’t give them the immediate answer they so insistently desire. Your Mentee cannot learn and grow if you are telling them exactly what to do and never giving them a chance to fail. Listening to your Mentee’s struggles can be incredibly hard to do because even though they think they know what the problem is, it’s up to you to tell them what it really is.
Building off being able to listen to your Mentee is knowing when to push them. After a period of time working together, you’ll know when they are starting to slack, starting to wane and eventually becoming happy with the comfortable spot they are in. Why rock the boat? You are there TO rock the boat, to push them into the uncomfortable, to give them a kick when everything is going fine so they can feel that sense of urgency that got them there in the first place.
I’ve worked with a few Mentees where they have outright complained about the pushes I gave them to get help them achieve a goal. But when they achieved that goal, their first response was to say thank me for giving them the push they needed. If you are ever in doubt as to whether you should provide a push, always remember why you became invested in this relationship in the first place – was it to make a new friend or help someone grow (hint: it’s the latter).
At some point during your relationship, your Mentee is going to make a decision that you probably would have never made. Or they might do something that you warned them would fail, but they decided to do it regardless. And then, while sitting back and waiting, you receive the harried call from your Mentee that all has failed, the call they made was the wrong one, they should have listened to you, now they don’t know what to do, etc, etc.
As any other person might be inclined to do you could offer up the never productive “I told you so”, but as a mentor, you can never do this. They are coming to you now, in their time of need, for guidance and support in what they should do next. If you’ve been there, great help them get out a bit faster than you, but don’t take it all away. They need to learn, but, in this case, they also need your support to get through and get back in the game.
5. Letting Go
At someone point in your relationship, you will reach the point where it’s now time to let your Mentee go. Not because they asked you to or because the time of your engagement is up, but because it is time for them to move on and grow. This is the hardest part of being a mentor when you have invested so much time in this person, and now it’s time to part ways for the only reason that for them to continue to grow, they must do so without you (or with a different mentor).
Letting a Mentee go on their own, either by leaving your team, employ, etc is not an easy task – one need only look to all the mothers crying when as their children leave the nest to go to school far away at the beginning of a new school year – but it’s necessary. Necessary because if they do not go, do not leave, then they will never grow and all that you would have taught them would have been for naught.
The hidden quality throughout all of this is trust – trust between both the mentor and mentee. Try as you might, if you don’t have that base quality of trust between two individuals trying to grow and become better, everything else falls down – your words becoming meaningless, your actions ignored and your suggestions questions. How do you establish this trust when it is not there, to begin with? Through small, consistent, dedicated actions that prove your commitment to not only wanting to mentor this person but from wanting to learn how to become a better mentor from working with this person.
Every relationship I have had in a Mentor/Mentee scenario has helped me with the next that came after – because I grew, I learned, I was pushed to become better for them and when the time was ready, I knew when I had to let go and push them to do something different. If you can, if you have the opportunity, being a mentor can be one of the greatest things you’ll ever do, being able to work so closely with someone and watching them grow and helping them achieve your goals – it is one of those things in life where both sides get more than what they put into it.