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Maybe you’ve reached a point in your career where you’d like to give a little something back and help others just starting on the path. Or maybe a newcomer to your company has approached you and asked you to be his mentor. Or maybe you often serve as an informal mentor to those around you, and you find you enjoy the role and would like to formalize it. Whatever your unique situation, you want to know more about mentoring, what you can do for others–and what you might get out of the relationship, too.
Understand what a mentor is…and is not The way the term “mentor” is bandied about, it’s easy to assume that everyone knows exactly what everyone else is talking about. But just like “family values” or “effective advertising,” the definition depends on who’s doing the defining.
In the most basic sense, when you act as a mentor, you’re agreeing to serve as an ad hoc advisor and sounding board to someone less experienced in the career world than you. While peers can sometimes successfully mentor other peers, the traditional mentor-mentee relationship involves two people at significantly different levels.
As a mentor, your one inviolable responsibility is to offer guidance with your mentee’s best interest in mind. If you cannot be objective about the advice you offer–because you work at the same company and want to enlist your mentee’s support in your own work travails, or because you find yourself too emotionally tied into the career decisions of your mentee–you need to choose another mentee or step away from the relationship if already established. Just as a doctor is assuming responsibility for the well being of his or her patient, you are accepting a certain level of responsibility for the career health of your mentee.
Above and beyond that objectivity, responsibilities vary. Some mentor-mentee pairs meet frequently and regularly; others get together sporadically. Some develop a personal friendship; others keep things strictly about business. Some relations last for years; others disappear after a few months. It’s entirely up to you and your mentee to decide what works.
Find a mentee. In most cases, mentors are in high demand and short supply. Mentees will likely be lining up at your door, once they are aware that you’re available and interested in being a mentor. That doesn’t mean mentees will always make the offer of partnership, though. Those on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder can get pretty intimidated by the notion of approaching a superior–even one at a different company–and asking for help, especially when they feel they may have little to offer in return.
If you have a specific person in mind with whom you’d like to establish an ongoing relationship, the simplest way to move forward is to mention your interest in being a sounding board. A simple statement like, “I’ve really enjoyed offering my insights in this field. If you’d like to, why don’t we set up a regular time to get together?” shows your interest and makes it clear that you’re talking about business.
If you’d like to serve as a mentor but don’t have a particular mentee in mind, you have several options. You can contact your company’s Human Resources department, call professional organizations you’re associated with and ask about mentoring programs or get in touch with local universities. And, of course, word of mouth is a terrific way to track down potential partners.
Once you’ve been introduced to a prospective mentee, spend time getting to know him first before proposing–or agreeing to–an ongoing relationship. What are his goals? What are the barriers to achieving them? What makes him tick, and can you identify with his path? And, perhaps most importantly, do you like him? If you don’t feel comfortable with the person or think you have little to offer in his particular field or in the areas he needs the most help with, keep looking. Your time and experience are too precious to be squandered on a poor match.
Get off to a good start. Once you’ve found someone who seems like a good fit with your experience and personality, you may need to take the initiative to set the tone of your meetings, especially if your mentee is fairly green. Be clear about what you can offer–advice, an empathetic ear, introductions–and what you can’t. If you’re only available by phone and can’t do in-person meetings, let your mentee know upfront. Chances are, he’s going to be very interested in keeping you around, so he’ll be more than happy to let you set the pace.
If you feel like your sessions with your mentee lack direction, ask questions about where your partner wants to go, and what you can do to help him get there. Encourage him to talk about his on-the-job challenges, uncertainties, and worries. Especially at first, keep things related to business only; if an outside friendship develops, wonderful. Also, do as much–or more–listening than you do talking. You’re trying to teach your partner through your experiences, but often the best way for someone to learn is by talking through their options and coming to their own conclusions.
Troubleshoot proactively. As with any relationship, there may be times when things with your mentee are running less smoothly than you’d like. The number one mentor complaint is being asked for more time or advice than you can comfortably give. The only way to banish that concern is to be clear about your boundaries. If your mentee is contacting you daily for advice, request that he consolidate his questions into one weekly phone call. If you’re being asked to recommend him for a job for which he’s not suited, let him know that you’re not comfortable doing so in this situation. You cannot expect your partner to read your mind, so it’s up to you to speak up if there’s a problem.
If other issues arise–breach of confidentiality, pursuit of a personal relationship where you’d like to keep things business-only, a complete lack of time to continue mentoring, or a garden-variety personality mismatch–be the bigger person in the relationship and know when it’s time to bring the mentoring relationship to a graceful close. You may feel guilty, but you’d be doing your mentee a disservice by continuing in the relationship when your heart isn’t in it.
Know there is something in it for you. Mentoring is seldom a thankless task. There are the mundane “thanks” you will likely receive–being treated to lunch, for instance, or getting some other expression of appreciation for your help. In other cases, though, mentors have found themselves on the receiving end of surprise benefits. Networking, for instance, goes both ways and your mentee just might be the one to introduce you to that perfect business partner, or to tell you of an opening in his company for which you’d be perfect. These rewards are often the sweeter because they’re entirely unexpected.
Mentoring is often an act of altruism–the direct, concrete rewards are often few. Maybe the best return for the investments you put into mentoring, though, are the intangibles: The feeling of goodwill you generate can often be payment enough.