Posted by: Christine Donovan | June 8, 2009

How to Be a Good Mentor

Last time I talked about finding and benefiting from a mentor, but often it’s the mentors themselves who need some training and support.

If you hadn’t thought about it before, the benefits of being a mentor are many:  One, you are grooming new “stars” for your business or company; Two, you are opening yourself up to new learning and growing experiences for yourself (mentors always learn from their proteges); and Three, you are enjoying a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment as you help others along the path and watch them succeed.

Here are a few tips for being a great mentor:

1.  First, know who you are, what you believe, and what you practice.

You really can’t be of much help to someone if you don’t know who you are first.  That may sound obvious, but many people get too involved in playing political games, or changing their minds/opinions depending on the direction the wind is blowing, and that creates problems at two levels:

First, your protégé isn’t learning much from you if you frequently change your principals or your approach to work (or management).  It’s hard to gain any usable knowledge if it’s changing every five minutes.  I used to have a boss like that; just when we thought we knew the direction we were taking and started to work on it, he would change his mind (usually because he got wind of the fact that some high level person wouldn’t support it).  

And “changing” can be OK of course, under the right circumstances.  It’s always important to be flexible as necessary, but I’m referring to (above) becoming a spineless wonder and keeping those around you confused and frustrated by your ever-evolving personality.  (But I’ll hold back on any in-depth discussion of that until I get around to talking about leadership).

The second problem if you have a chameleon-like personality, is that you’ll soon find yourself without a mentor job.   If your protégé begins to observe your lack of confidence,  your inability to take a stand on principals or to walk your own talk, she will decide to find another mentor….fast.

Mentoring is a wonderful opportunity for personal growth, because we are forced to look at ourselves through the eyes of our protégé, and sometimes it can be a shocking experience.

2. Read and study coaching techniques. 

Good teachers and coaches don’t “preach” nonstop, but instead ask questions and let the student discover many lessons on their own.  It’s much more effective, and in fact has a name.   It’s called Socratic questioning technique, designed by the famous Greek philosopher himself. 

Typical Socratic questions might include:

  • What do you mean by…?
  • Could you put that another way?
  • What do you think is the main issue?
  • Could you give us an example?
  • Could you expand upon that point further?

As a speaker and seminar leader, I often use this technique, and not only do the students learn more, but it gives them an opportunity to participate and therefore become more involved in the whole experience.

3. Observe your protégé… notice her talents, skills and weaknesses

Many people just don’t realize what they are naturally good at, and as a mentor you are in a position to point those talents out to your student.   Maybe your student has a knack for dealing with people, or is exceptionally organized, or has an aptitude for logistics or financial expertise.  It’s important that you point out any of these talents to them because they probably have no benchmark from which to measure their own abilities.  We are often the last to know what our real talents are, because nobody has told us!

Of course, weaknesses need to be addressed as well.  If you have establishied a trusting relationship with your protégé so that she knows you are looking out for her best interests, there shouldn’t be any resistance to your sharing areas for development and improvement.

If he lacks technical or people skills for example, you might, in addition to coaching, suggest helpful books and training opportunities, as well as telling stories about the days when you were starting out on your own career path.  People  just starting up the corporate ladder tend to think that their mentors and role models were born knowing everything (well, a LOT, anyway), so it’s helpful to them if you emphasize some of your own lessons learned along the way.

4.  Understand and use the power of modeling.

Speaking of sharing stories, there is probably no better teaching or mentoring method than modeling the behavior or skill you want your student to learn.

Invite your protégé to shadow you whenever possible; he can join you in meetings, sit in when you are negotiating with a customer (when feasible of course), watch you resolve an issue, or fix a technical problem.

And you can be sure he will observe it all (including specifics, like habits and vices).  So if you tell him to be on time, make sure you are early.  If you’re teaching him that patience is a virtue, then don’t walk around cussing out your staff.

Modeling is effective because, when we see others succeed with the very thing we struggle with, it gives us encouragement as well as an exceptional source of learning.

More tomorrow…


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