The concepts of mentoring, of being a mentor, of being in need of a mentor have been a common element of conversation in most organizations for some time. But what exactly is a mentor, how does one behave as a mentor, and how does one go about being mentored? Let me address these questions one at a time.
Although many organizations attempt to establish a formal process of mentoring — that is, assigning various employees a specific mentor — I have never been fully convinced of the effectiveness of such efforts. There are instances where management in a highly technical profession may assign a technical specialist/mentor to train and verify a new employee’s skill competency before turning them lose on the job. But because these instances involve a quasi-managerial, supervisory, pass/fail element, they are outside my focus here.
There is also the practice of having a buddy, so to speak, assigned to show new folks around and spell out the various dos and don’ts of an organization. This process can — and in many instances should — be formalized, lest new employees get off on the wrong foot. But this is not what I would call the sort of professional mentoring that can make a great difference in a successful managerial career. The activity I am referring to here is an informal process that generally takes place outside of an employee’s direct managerial chain of command.
A mentor, in my view, is generally someone with experience who voluntarily gives of her or his time to another — usually a junior employee — to share important lessons, advice, suggestions, and insights designed to foster professional growth. The best mentors are unselfish, thoughtful, non-directional, and never possessive of other human beings. Their motivation is a dedication to the nurturing of the talent they see in others and they are prepared to allow others to accept, reject, or incorporate their advice as they will. While like all of us, a good mentor will enjoy signs of appreciation, they ask little else in return. Most importantly, the best mentors understand that successful professionals usually have multiple mentors during their career and therefore they know when to let go.
The act of mentoring itself, is far more art than science. No matter how willing we may be to share advice with others, their receptivity is essential to success. Those of us who have raised children most certainly understand this. Timing is everything, personality compatibility matters (a key reason assigned mentor relationships often fail), patience is essential, as is a willingness to graciously accept whatever response we may receive. To be unselfish as a mentor means understanding that others have the right to make their own choices.
Mentoring is easiest when others seek us out and ask for our counsel and advice. But it oft-times requires that sixth sense born of experience that tells us now is a good time for a mentoring intervention. No matter the situation, to mentor effectively we must genuinely care about the success and growth of those around us and be willing to venture forth regardless of the outcome.
Lastly, what does it mean and require of us to be mentored? On the surface, the answer should be simple. Who of us would ever say we neither need nor ever want the advice of others? Yet who of us has not for any number of reasons occasionally turned a cold ear to advice that turned out to be spot on?
Allowing ourselves to be mentored requires a conscious effort on our part. It requires admitting that we do not already know it all, or have all the answers. It requires that we acknowledge that what we think about something may be wrong and that feeling somewhat lost, we may not be capable of figuring something out by ourselves.
For many this is a humbling experience that inhibits their ability to be mentored. If following the advice of others is viewed as an admission of a personal or intellectual shortcoming, then the efforts of even the best mentor are likely to have little effect.
The best managers I have known all acknowledge the critical role that a series of mentors have had in helping to shape their personal success. They understand that in a complex managerial world, none of us — no matter how talented — make it on our own. When necessary, they have actively sought out the wise counsel of more experienced colleagues and have been willing to carefully consider and heed the unsolicited advice occasionally given them by a mentor at critical times in their career.
No surprise, the best managers are more than willing to reciprocate by helping junior colleagues tread the managerial path. So, look around you and find a mentor of your own.