I'm A Mentor, What Now?

In our work with thousands of mentors, we typically see three different reactions to taking on the role of mentor inside an organisation or membership body (gender irrelevant; names are used just to describe the personae). 

1. Over-Confident Orlando
Orlando has been a manager for over a decade, so he thinks that automatically makes him a good mentor. He knows how to lead and manage people, so this mentoring thing should be easy, right? Wrong.

Mentoring is quite different from managing. For a start, the person being mentored is probably not a direct report, so there are very different relationship responsibilities and issues, plus, the mentee is quite free to ignore what the mentor says (it’s a career-limiting move for a direct report to ignore their boss).

Second, Orlando may not be a very good listener. He may get away with this as a manager (only just) but poor listening will almost certainly lead to poor mentoring.
Finally, if Orlando thinks he has nothing to learn about mentoring, then almost certainly he has a Fixed Mindset rather than a Growth Mindset and believes that his and his mentee’s abilities are unchanging. Orlando would be a better role model for his mentee if he believed that people can learn and grow, otherwise as a mentor he may unwittingly help his mentee stunt their own development.

2. Uncertain Ursula
Ursula is the polar opposite of Orlando. She may be afflicted with imposter syndrome and wonder when the mentoring program organisers are going to discover she really has nothing to contribute. She may play it very safe and need a great deal of support in the form of training, tools and guides until she feels more comfortable. She may find herself paired with a mentee very different from herself and will find this extremely challenging.

She does, however, recognise she has a lot to learn and will relish educational opportunities. If she can build confidence, she may make a very good mentor.

3. Comfortable Caitlyn
Caitlyn may not have mentored before, but she takes to it like a duck to water. She laps up the resources provided to her and supplements these with her own bag of tricks she has built up over the years. She knows and is not frightened when she is out of her depth, so she will seek help when needed. She has natural warmth and empathy and quickly puts her mentee at ease with her accomplished listening and questioning skills. She is not threatened by revealing her weaknesses, in fact she talks about her foibles with some humour and doesn’t take herself too seriously. She has a Growth Mindset and encourages this in her mentees.

I am not sure of the incidence of these three mentor types (that could be the subject of a future study) but, in my experience we have far too many Orlandos in our organisations and even the best mentor trainer would have trouble turning them into Comfortable Colins, assuming they would attend the training.

Even more extreme examples are ‘celebrity mentors’ who frequent start-up mentoring programs for entrepreneurs. Whilst some of these people may make very good mentors, a dose of celebrity from having earned millions from the sale of a business may lull even the best into believing in their own infallibility and forgetting their own circumstances may have been very different from their mentee’s.

So, what can we do as potential mentors?
1. Be honest with yourself
If you haven’t mentored before, ask yourself if you really understand what it takes to be a great mentor. If you’re not sure what a great mentor looks like, try to educate yourself. You can start by reading the tips below.

2. Calibrate your confidence level
Are you feeling timid about starting? If so, skilling up will lift your confidence. Ask your program organiser to provide resources if they haven’t already. Are you feeling super-confident? It might be time to get some feedback from people you trust about whether you really are a good listener and ask great questions; or do you automatically hand out advice and pearls of wisdom before you fully understand the issue?

3. Seek out role models
Find some people who are acknowledged to be masterful mentors and interview them, to see what you can learn.

4. Mind your mindset
Try to bring a ‘mentoring mindset’ to each conversation with your mentee. Attitude trumps skill every time.

Professor David Clutterbuck offers these insights into mentoring mastery:

Characteristics of great mentors:
  • Listen deeply and attentively - Great mentors listen much more than they talk.
  • Ask really powerful questions - They listen deeply to the mentee and so have time to draw on their experience to ask questions that will stimulate deep thinking.
  • Understand what is useful feedback - Recognise the difference between giving advice (which is generally far less helpful than the giver thinks) and guiding by giving context (which provides just enough information for the mentee to find new perspectives and solutions on their own).
  • Self-awareness - Great mentors have strong emotional intelligence and a deep humility that comes from self-knowledge.
  • Compassion - They care about and believe in the potential of their mentees and their ability to continue growth. They are brave enough to give tough advice or feedback and confident that this will not harm the relationship.
  • Knowing when to let go - They’re delighted when the mentee outgrows the need for their support and see this as a sign of the success of the learning relationship. They may even enjoy some reverse mentoring from their mentee.

Tips for Program Managers
1. Discourage over-confident people from volunteering as mentors, unless they have enough of a Growth Mindset to be willing to attend or complete online training. Preparing mentors for the engagement is a critical success factor in mentoring programs and mentors who are unprepared to complete at least 1-2 hours of orientation are either too busy to take the responsibility seriously or will never make great mentors.

2. Try to identify and support the Ursulas, they will need your help and guidance as well as reassurance that they are doing a good job. A mid-program check-in is useful but may be too late to identify mentors who lack confidence so try to identify who needs more support, early in your program.

3. Encourage mentees to give their mentors honest feedback to help them more realistically assess their own capability.

4. Provide higher level mentor training to Caitlyns so that they continue to hone their mentoring mastery.

© Melissa Richardson