Okay, so here are my thoughts on the other side of the mentorship equation: being a mentor. As you know, I believe seeking mentors is extremely important when you are making your way up. What about when you have made it (or at least made it part way)? How do you give back? Finding and supporting mentees can be very rewarding. It can also provide you with an opportunity to leave a professional legacy.
- Take care of your own career. I almost left this step out, as it seems pretty obvious. However, in thinking further, I have seen folks that start “mentoring” others (read “bossing them around”) when they have no place to do so. That being said, here is the obvious advice: Develop a career that you are proud of. Become a leader (recognized as such by others, not just yourself) who has some solid accomplishments under your belt. Follow your values and strengths to a successful career path that you would like to share. My biggest suggestion is to wait to start mentoring until you see others seeking out your advice. That is a good hint that you are ready to move into mentorship because others are already putting you in the mentor role.
- Identify people whose careers you would like to nurture. Okay, so once you are set and ready to mentor people, you need to identify who those people should be. Observe the people around you who are on the way up. Identify whose talents, strengths, values, personality, or motivation is exciting to you. There are some folks that naturally stand out and may be good candidates to be your mentee. However, don’t only stick with the high achievers. Avoid overlooking the folks who have under-utilized or under-developed strengths. These folks may be more appreciative of a mentor, or they may need something specific to propel them forward in their career path that you are equipped to offer. Find someone whose potential matches up with your skills, so you have the interest and ability to help her grow or capitalize on her strengths. Also, keep your eyes open for folks seeking a mentor, When a potential mentee approaches you, look at all the same things I just listed, but also keep in mind that this person may be more motivated to fully participate in the mentorship process.
- Figure out how to help them out. Mentees are as not one-size-fits-all. Some of the high achievers just need a champion to help them into the next step of their careers. Some of those who have under-utilized strengths or skills need to be moved into the right opportunity so they can shine. They might also be best supported in transforming their work to maximize their strengths. The ones with the biggest mentorship needs, the ones with under-developed strengths, might need someone to take their hand and teach them how to grow themselves professionally. Once the needs are identified, it is important to make sure that you are approaching mentorship in a way that fits the personality of your mentee. Learn your mentee: How does he learn best? What type of praise or acknowledgement does he want? What role does he want to play in the mentorship relationship? When you know what your mentee needs and how your mentee can best receive your help, you can take the next step and become the mentor that they need.
- Be the mentor that they need. Some people want mentors that will support and nurture them. Others want a straight-up, no-nonsense, I-am-going-to-challenge-you mentor. Once you figure out how to help your mentee, you can incorporate that information into your approach. As much as you can, adjust your style so that you make a positive, helpful connection with your mentee. One thing to think about: if you are not able to adjust your style enough to suit your mentee, take a look at yourself and see if you are really the right fit. A mentorship relationship should be helpful and supportive. That doesn’t mean you avoid challenges or conflict. It means that, all things being considered, you are helping to move your mentee’s career forward or that you are helping her professional development. If that is not the case, back away from the mentorship relationship. It will not be rewarding or meaningful for either of you,
- Don’t stand in their way. When you have a really good mentee, it can be very tempting to keep her there, by your side, indefinitely. You work well together, you still have things you can teach her, what is the problem? This whole thing is not cool. Part of mentorship is working yourself out of a job. Do not get so caught up in the mentorship relationship to forget the goal: developing your mentee professionally and moving your mentee’s career forward. I am not saying that you should push your mentee into the first promotion that she might qualify for. Not at all. You want to help your mentee decide what next steps to take by sharing your own professional experience while providing feedback on her strengths or how she pursues her career goals. What I am saying is don’t get in the way by sabotaging her forward progress (e.g., hiding job postings, degrading your mentee’s abilities, or hindering her in an interview or providing a negative reference) just to keep your mentee by your side. It may be painful, but you must let your caterpillar turn into a butterfly. It is a success for you, too!
- Succession planning. This isn’t a step, per se, but I wanted to make a comment about succession planning. One of the most obvious times for mentorship is when you are ready to move on. Whether you are moving on due to a new job or retirement, it is important, if you can, to develop people that can take your place. In planning for succession, you want to identify who can do what you do (one or more people) and then look at those people to see what skills they need to develop before they can take over. Teaching people to do your job, nurturing their own skills, and helping them to make the work their own, is so important when you want to leave something positive behind.
With the various people I have mentored over the years, I have found that my best mentorship has been to people I was really invested in and who, in turn, respected me and what I had to offer. When there was a personal compatibility, a common purpose, and an agreement on the mentee’s potential/goals/etc., the mentorship relationship has soared. I have been privileged to help a number of people advance in their careers. It has been (and continues to be) the most rewarding part of my work.
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