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The Do's and Don'ts of Being a Mentor


You may enjoy being a mentor, or dread it. Regardless, you probably know it's an important experience that will develop leadership competencies in yourself -- as well as giving back to others just as you were helped along the way in your career.

But it's not a commitment to take lightly or an easy one to fulfill. Before you forge ahead into mentorship, understand the do's and don'ts of being a mentor.

Do help your mentee set a clear agenda. Whether you're in an informal mentoring relationship or a formal program, you'll stand the best chance of success if your mentee sets specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and timely goals. (SMART) Ideally, your mentee will come to meetings with a clear agenda and points to cover, but if not, some gentle prompting is in order. You usually will have so much ground to cover -- and so many potential detours -- that staying focused is key.

Do listen to your mentee carefully. Pay attention both to what is said and what is not said as your mentee recounts her work situations and challenges. Probe gently if you feel you're not getting the full story.

Listen more than you talk. Remember, you're not there to give advice or expound from a position of wisdom, you're coaching your mentee to set her own goals and figure out how to overcome her challenges.

Do be open to learning from your mentee. Mentoring can be a two-way experience. You'll most likely hear fresh ideas and perspectives from your mentee, not to mention valuable information about other parts of the industry or the organization.

Beware the mentor pitfall of thinking you have all the answers. You never know when you might learn a new networking technique or uncover a market trend or opportunity.

Do work through stumbling blocks. Any close relationship will likely encounter bumps in the road. That may be as small as a missed meeting or misinterpreted email, or as large as an ethics or strategy disagreement.

Refuse to let one obstacle derail your path. Stick to your commitment. Revisit your goals if needed and be open to choosing new ones if needed. If one of you is wrestling with a busy work schedule that makes it hard to meet, a gentle but heartfelt reminder of the importance of your work together may get you back on track.

Do look for opportunities for your mentee. A mentor isn't the same thing as a sponsor, someone who advocates for a protégée with the higher-ups in an organization. But even a mentor should keep her eyes open for leadership and growth opportunities that may stretch and challenge your mentee.

If you work for the same employer, it may be easy to spot projects, initiatives or committees that fit the bill. But even if you're not with the same organization, there could be positions with a professional association or industry group that would give your mentee much-needed visibility.

Don't solve your mentee's problems for him. Mentoring expert Lois Zachary puts it well by saying you're not the "sage on the stage," you're the "guide on the side." Being a mentor, it's much more useful to help your mentee to find her own path rather than just giving the answers to her challenges.

For one, the solutions you remember best are the ones you came to yourself, after much hard work and careful thought. Moreover, you really don't know all the facets of her work environment and might well be wrong if you spouted off a glib response to a problem.

Don't believe everything your mentee says. By the same token, listen to your mentee with a grain of salt. Try to suss out her blind spots and take the other perspective in each story. (Like the annoying team member who always seems to object to your mentee's ideas.) Ask probing questions and gently challenge your mentee's biases.

Don't take on a mentoring commitment unless you have time. Everybody likes to be asked for advice. But being a mentor is far more than having your ego stroked. Your mentee deserves someone who has the time, emotional energy and mental space to give her undivided attention.

At the beginning of your mentor relationship, talk about the time commitment and how long you'll be working together. Often, people set a six month initial period so that it's manageable. Be realistic about your own bandwidth and if you must say no, you can always network to find her someone who can commit.

Don't mistake a mentoring session for a gripe session. It's easy to whine and moan about the impediments to your deserved career success. Help your mentee avoid this trap.

Encourage her to focus on the issues that she wants to tackle first and that are possible to change. When you hear the same complaints coming up over and over, point that out and see if there's a deeper reason at play. Together you can discover which issues are solvable.

Don't let it be all business. Depending on your personality, you may approach every work-related interaction with seriousness and purpose. Remember that an important part of your role is to inspire your mentee and show that you genuinely care about her. That could mean a running joke or simply inquiring about her family and hobbies. You're working with a whole person, not an automaton.

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