Despite the many misconceptions surrounding mentoring, there is one truth successful business leaders know without a doubt: mentoring remains the most powerful tool for creating meaningful relationships, furthering professional development, and increasing engagement and retention.
Lisa Fain, CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence and the author of Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring, believes that the most important piece of a successful mentoring partnership lies in who you’ve selected as your mentor. I spoke with her about the most important questions to ask yourself and your prospective mentor.
Let’s start out with some mentoring basics: What’s your definition of mentoring?
Mentoring is a reciprocal, structured relationship that both mentor and mentee co-create. It is a collaborative partnership that focuses on mutually defined goals around the mentee’s development.
There is a lot in this definition that is surprising to people. The first surprising thing is that it is reciprocal. So often mentees worry that they are greedily taking up the mentor’s time or that they are a burden for the mentor. To the contrary, I hear over and over again from mentors that they gain a broader perspective and become better leaders and professionals because of what they learn in mentoring.
Mentoring pairs are often surprised at the level of structure we recommend. Although many mentoring pairs resist having a structured mentoring relationship, we have found that they find the structure to be freeing because they don’t have to wonder what to do or say every time. We also know that the structure helps mentoring pairs track their success, be accountable to one another and keep on track towards their goals.
Why is it hard to find a good mentor?
There are two common reasons that people find it hard to find a good mentor—one has to do with the mentee and one has to do with the mentor. Most prospective mentees don’t take the time to think about what they want to learn and who would be a good fit for them as a mentor. They find someone they admire or someone they think might have something to teach them and then assume that person will know how to guide them. Just because someone is accomplished or admired does not mean they will be a good mentor, and even if they might be, they won’t be able to help you if you don’t know what you want to learn.
The other main reason I see is that many mentors don’t understand that the role of a mentor isn’t to give the mentee an answer. It is hard to find a mentor who understands that their role is to provide guidance, feedback and insight so that the mentee can find the answer for themselves – not to solve the mentee’s problems for them.
What are some ways to find one?
Finding a good mentor is more art than science. The best way is to identify what you want to learn. Tell people you know and respect that you are looking for a mentor in a particular area and ask who they know who has relevant experience, would be a good listener, and might be willing to give of their time. Then, build an initial relationship with that person to determine whether it is a good fit. Have lunch or coffee and learn about what they do. Be inquisitive and share what you want to learn. Ask to be mentored by them only when you are certain that there is a connection, a learning fit, and a genuine desire by both of you to engage. People tend to find good mentoring relationships by consciously building their network – maybe it is a speaker at a conference, an author in your field, or a friend of a colleague.
One caution – don’t engage your direct supervisor as your mentor. A mentor is there to look at your overall development, not your performance in your current role. Your direct manager is accountable to your organization for performance goals. These may be at odds with your long-term development goals, and a mentor who is not responsible for evaluating your job performance can be more objective and focused on what’s good for YOU, whether or not it’s good for the organization.
Talk about mentoring and its power to build bridges.
My last corporate job was leading Diversity and Inclusion for a retail company. I saw people go to training after training to learn really important fundamental concepts about how to accept and embrace difference and how to create an inclusive work environment. Many of these trainings were terrific, but they rarely resulted in action. Participants left with great ideas and increased understanding, but most participants never understood how to put it into action because they never developed relationships with people who were different from them in some substantial way. When people have relationships across differences, where they build trust with one another, learn together and work together to overcome obstacles towards a common goal, they expand their perspectives. They learn how to lean into differences and understand one another. Mentoring is an incredible tool for this because mentoring pairs can really connect in a way that is unlikely in most other work contexts.
You’ve seen more of these relationships than most anyone. When you see a terrific mentoring relationship, what defines it?
This is a great question. Good mentoring happens when mentoring partners take the time to get to know each other and build trust. It happens when mentor and mentee are willing to be open and at least a little bit vulnerable about what they know and don’t know and what their challenges are. Good mentoring is characterized by good conversation, which happens when listening and curiosity are present. Mentor and mentee hold their mentoring time sacred and are present and prepared for each session. They are goal centered. Mentoring partners are checking in on their relationship and on their progress on goals. I often say that for mentoring pairs, there are three sets of interests to consider: the mentor, the mentee and the relationship. Effective mentoring pairs are invested in the learning of mentor and mentee and in growing the strength of the relationship.
How do you prepare yourself when entering a mentoring relationship?
Preparation is truly key. Self-awareness is the first step for mentor and mentee. Think about how you learn best. What are some of your own biases? What privileges do you benefit from? Take the time to think about your own professional journey and what qualities your mentors and role models had in the past. On a more tactical note, set aside the time for your mentoring meetings and for preparation and reflection. Mentoring is work – it is worth it, but it does require an investment of time.
What are some ways to learn from the inherent differences between the mentor and mentee?
You can learn from difference when you understand your mentoring partner in terms of their own individual uniqueness and their culture. Start to notice differences you might not readily observe—differences in what motivates you, how you learn, how you view a particular issue or problem. Then, get curious about those differences. Ask each other where those perspectives come from and notice (without judgement) how your own view might be different. You’ll find that this will help uncover assumptions you may have made about one another, or biases that you didn’t know you had. Learning from difference requires good conversation, which comes from real listening and engagement in an environment of trust.
Coming to closure isn’t something most think about. Why is the fourth phase of the mentoring cycle often ignored? How do you close well?
People sometimes resist closure because they are afraid it will be awkward. People don’t know what to say. It can feel too formal, too “touchy feely”, particularly if mentoring partners continue to work in the same organization. Closure in mentoring is a chance to take stock of your relationship and measure your learning. It allows you a chance to re-evaluate and determine how you want to move forward. There are lots of ways to come to closure. The best closure conversations feature a reflection on what you have learned, appreciation of one another (whether a note or a memento), a celebration of your accomplishments as mentoring partners, and a discussion of how you will move forward.
For more information, see Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring.
Image credit: Modestas Urbonas