Posted by: Kristen Ridley | December 3, 2010

Mentoring / Being Mentored: A Perspective

I’ve had two mentors during my career. Given that I’ve been a corporate communicator for almost 15 years, that’s not a big number. But what my mentors lack in quantity they made up for in quality – they both get a substantial amount of credit for the positive aspects of the kind of communicator, and, more importantly the kind of business professional I’ve become. [Note: they are NOT, however, in any way responsible for any of the bone-headed things I’ve done through the years – those are all on me!]. I learned a great deal about the kind of business person I want to aspire to be from my mentors, and I’m very grateful to both of them.

Then in just the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor some younger communicators, and it was a very interesting switch in position for me to be the mentor instead of the person being mentored [Note 2: I know that the general usage term for a person being mentored is “mentee”, however, whenever I see or hear that word my brain instead downloads “manatee”. I know that’s weird, and I know it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Nevertheless, that is what my brain processes and I begin to giggle uncontrollably, making me fit for nothing for at least 30 minutes. In the interest of getting this post written before 2011, I’m going to go with “person being mentored” for the purposes of this post.].

When I suddenly connected the dots [helped along by some comments and thank-yous from the communicators I was talking to] and realized that in offering advice and perspectives on what I’ve learned to younger communicators, I had become a mentor myself, I began to reflect on the important, if unspoken responsibility you accept in presuming to offer advice to anyone else.

I also thought about some of the things to look for if you are a younger communicator seeking a mentor, and decided I’d offer my perspective. Since I have now been on both sides of this relationship, I feel like I am now qualified to voice one woman’s opinion on the subject of the important qualities in a mentor. I think whether you ARE the mentor or you are LOOKING for a mentor, the qualities themselves are the same. It’s the angle you come at those qualities from that changes depending which side of the relationship you are on:

Experience

If you are the mentor, I think that you should have a fair bit of experience under your belt before you become qualified to mentor a younger professional in any area. That doesn’t necessarily have to translate into years [although both of my mentors had more than 20 years in the field when I met them and had tons of great experiences they shared with me]. A mentor can also be someone who’s younger in age, but who has had a variety of professional experiences to draw on and share with someone just starting out. In order to be a helpful mentor, I believe you need to have experienced a fair amount of the possibilities yourself. How else can you build a foundation about what you know and what you think, and have vetted those opinions against others?

If you are being mentored, you need someone who can offer you advice, and tell you war stories based on their own actual experiences. You are looking for a mentor who can help you see the pitfalls, and take advantage of the opportunities to grow and excel based on real-life in real roles. Otherwise, you’re talking to a peer, not a mentor. And while a peer can offer great insights as well, the point of a mentor is to learn from someone who’s really “been there, done that and got the t-shirt” so you can consider how you want to build your own career with feedback that’s usable and based on the situations you’ll face in the real world.

Objectivity

If you are the mentor you must be able to remain objective in offering advice to a younger communicator. It is a tremendous responsibility to be an older and – hopefully – wiser individual and you should be very careful about how you fulfill that responsibility. I believe the true role of a mentor is to help the younger person to come to their OWN perspective about what to do or not do. Your role as the mentor is to identify and highlight the various options, and perhaps bring alternative possibilities to the discussion. You should NOT seek to TELL your younger colleague what they ought to believe or do. By functioning as a sounding board, and discussion partner, a good mentor can help a younger person to explore the various options and come to their own conclusions and opinions. As a bonus, I’ve found you as the mentor will often learn something new yourself from participating in such discussions!

If you are being mentored you should be very wary of a mentor who seems to be trying to guide you in a particular direction. The role of a good mentor is to offer you the sounding board mentioned above. You should be seeking to develop your own opinions about your profession specifically, and being a business professional in general. If you simply adopt the perspectives of a mentor, no matter how talented or well-intentioned they may be without digging deeper to see if you truly embrace them, you will eventually find that they won’t hold up for you and you’ll eventually need to jettison them and start over. A true mentor will ask lots of general questions about various topics, and encourage you to challenge various views to come to an understanding of what YOU feel is the right way to proceed. If your mentor doesn’t seem open to you questioning and challenging everything and anything in your conversations, keep looking – you can, and should do better for yourself and your career.

Listening

If you are the mentor you should be extremely cognizant of the fact that a mentoring relationship should be more about the person BEING mentored than the mentor! When you are a mentor, especially if it’s the first time you’ve been in such a role, it can be a very flattering and heady experience. It is very tempting, when you have a younger person sitting at a table with you just waiting to hear what you have to say, to allow yourself to go off expounding at length about what you think is the great insight you have to share. That’s not to say that as a mentor you don’t have great insights – of course you do! That’s WHY the person you are mentoring has come to you in the first place. But, I remind myself frequently, that as a mentor, my most important responsibility is to listen to the interests, the questions, and the challenges my younger colleague is exploring. I try to stick with a 70-30% split in the talking, with me doing the 30%. That way I know I’m focusing the discussion on the person being mentored. If I’m talking much more than 30%, it’s probably gotten too focused on me, which is not at all the point of a mentoring relationship.

If you are being mentored, the above still goes. You should feel like the conversations you have with your mentor are really focused on your interests and challenges. You should be getting help and insights, sure, but a really good mentor will be able to ask pertinent questions, or offer specific insights that allow YOU to clarify or boil down what you think, why you think it, and what would be best for you to do about whatever “it” is. You should always feel like the centre of attention when you and your mentor are talking. The point of having a mentor is for you to throw out what you are thinking and experiencing, and have someone who’s experienced the same things add some spin and lob it back to you so YOU can decide what to do. A mentor is absolutely NOT supposed to tell you what to do – they’re supposed to help you figure out what you should do.

Kindness

If you are the mentor, it is important to remember that while you’ve experienced many of the things you are talking about, the person you are mentoring is likely going through all of it for the first time. And when you’re going through something for the first time, it feels monumental. The job of a good mentor is to be able to go back and remember how huge this felt when YOU went through it for the first time, so you can offer advice and ask questions that recognize the big hill this situation represents for the person you are mentoring. The reason they want to talk to you is because they figure you can tell them something about all this “stuff” that they couldn’t figure out for themselves, since you’ve already [presumably] lived through it to tell the tale. Giving advice is important, but being kind and understanding while you do so is even more key.

If you are being mentored, you deserve to have your thoughts and feelings understood and respected. You want good advice, of course, but you should also expect that the advice will be given in a sensitive way. You probably won’t get your feedback with sensitivity from your boss [unless of course, you’re lucky enough to have a mentoring boss], so your mentor should be able to give you suggestions, and hear your venting with a smile and some true understanding and encouragement for what you are going through, because they’ve gone through it too. Talking to your mentor should always leave you feeling heard and helped and lifted up so that you feel raring to go back to your desk and make progress on whatever was giving you trouble.

Commitment/Time

If you are the mentor, be certain that you can offer the time to be a truly helpful mentor before you agree to take on that responsibility. You are probably a successful professional, or your younger colleague wouldn’t have asked you to be their mentor, but that probably means that you have a demanding career of your own to manage. I have found that making the time to mentor younger people is more than worthwhile in the time it requires, because I always learn something myself from the conversations, but you do need to be willing to make time to talk if you agree to be a mentor. You can’t ignore your colleague whenever you are busy. Being a mentor is a commitment like anything else you agree to do as a professional, so you need to work time into your schedule for regular discussions. You also need to be prepared for the occasional crisis plea which won’t always be convenient, but try to make the time for these, as long as they don’t happen every single day!

If you are being mentored, you should try to work out a regular time to talk with your mentor that works for both of your schedules. I’ve found once a week worked for me and the individuals I’ve mentored, but your situation may call for more or less frequency. It’s important to set realistic expectations with your mentor, so that both of you know what to expect from the relationship, and how your conversations will go. And yes, there will be times when something traumatic, or demoralizing or frustrating happens and your first thought is to pick up the phone, or walk right into your mentor’s office to de-brief it. My recommendation is to discuss this type of occurence with your mentor BEFORE it actually happens, so that you have some idea of when it is okay to unexpectedly ask for your mentor’s time, and when it isn’t. While you should expect a commitment from your mentor to help you process things, you need to keep in mind that your mentor has a demanding job too, and they may not always be able to be immediately available to you on the spur of the moment. If you work out in advance how best to handle such incidences, everyone will get what they need.

Those are the key qualities I think a mentoring relationship should have as a bare minimum, but I know there are others, so please feel free to add to my list with other things a mentor or a person looking for a mentor should have or should look for.

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