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The Do's and Don'ts of Mentoring

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There are plenty of things in life that come naturally: breathing, walking, cashing paychecks with a smile on your face. But being mentored isn't always one of them. In fact, mentoring done right can be one of the most challenging, and rewarding, business relationships you cultivate. So it's important to follow these five best practices and avoid the five big pitfalls of mentoring.

Do find a mentor who challenges you. It's easy to fall into a mentor relationship with your former boss who is now a close friend and shares your fears, sense of humor, work experience and personality traits. But you may learn more from mentoring with someone more aggressive or with a different background than you. Moreover, your mentor must be able to call you on your bad habits and prod you to productive change. Be open to constructive criticism and listen well.

Do analyze what you are hoping to achieve with a mentor. No, you're not allowed to say, get promoted. A mentor isn't going to hand you the keys to the next higher pay grade. You should be able to articulate the specific skills you want to learn, type of exposure you hope to gain or networks that you want to tap through this new relationship. Set clear and achievable goals.

Do network your way to the right mentor. By naming your objectives, it's now easier to list the qualities you want in a mentor as well as logistical considerations like whether she's inside or outside your organization, or geographically close. Ask people in your networks who they know that fits the bill. Make sure that person is open and able to be a mentor, both in available time and mindset.

Do set the agenda. It's easy to fall into the trap of deferring to your mentor because she has more experience and higher rank than you. But you're the one who's hoping to advance her executive career, find work-life balance or whatever goal you set. You need to come to each meeting prepared with the points you need help with, and stay on track with bigger goals over time.

You also should agree on ground rules around confidentiality and reach a shared expectation around how frequently you'll meet and how long you'll need to reach your goals.

Do follow up and follow through. There's nothing more annoying than someone who asks for your advice and then drops off the face of the earth. Instead, follow up with your mentor to share how you implemented her advice and the difference it made for your career or given challenge. Be open to feedback throughout the mentoring relationship.

Now that we've covered the things you should do, here are the don'ts of mentoring:

Don't pick a mentor in your chain of command. Sure, your supervisor or boss can be a helpful guide and advisor, now and throughout your career. But someone outside your immediate chain of command will be able to give you more objective advice, without having to worry about how your productivity or job performance will impact the team and shared goals.

Moreover, you'll be more able to be honest and frank with a mentor who isn't responsible for your work promotions and pay. You don't want to worry that sharing a weakness in hopes of improving will open your boss's eyes to your previously unnoticed flaws.

Don't jump into a mentoring relationship. It's not exactly like dating, but a good mentor-mentee match requires a personality fit and a similar approach to working together. Not to mention that both parties must be committed to making progress and seeing it through to the goals you both set out. It takes time for you to be sure that all the conditions are right.

Don't select a mentor just like you. This is a tough one, because there are certainly rare occasions when very similar people are a good mentor-mentee fit. But more often, you'll fall into mentoring with someone because you get along and have a similar style, regardless of what that person can teach you. It's better to overcome some discomfort at meeting with someone who awes you a bit, in order to partner with someone who can genuinely challenge you to stretch and grow.

Don't abuse your mentor's time. From the very first time you sit down with a prospective mentor, you want to respect that person's time and focus on the task at hand. Of course, socializing and building a relationship are part of the task -- so it's fine to have some chit-chat before getting down to business. But rather than griping about all the things you're struggling with, be focused in meetings on the few top priorities before you now.

Don't rely on just one mentor. At any given stage of your career, you'll have a different set of challenges. So naturally, you'll seek out a different type of mentor for each one. You may only work regularly with each person for six months to a year, until the challenge is overcome. But stay in touch! After a decade or two, expect to have collected a handful of advisors that you can rely on for new puzzles or transitions. No one mentor is the end-all-be-all for your career.

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