We all have the opportunity to mentor people in our workplaces or within our community. Learn the top tips for being the mentor you want for others, right here, right now!
Recently, I stepped away from a job I held at a nonprofit. I returned, this week, in a consulting role for an accreditation visit by the state funding partner. While my role has significantly changed in relationship to the organization, it has not changed in relation to the people who work there. For the six months I worked at the nonprofit, I functioned as the go-to mentor among many of the staff. With the social work interns, I built up confidence and shared strategies for working as new professionals. For my professional peers, I shared my journey to my role and how I made sure my boundaries remained respected and my professional goals understood.
In short order, I mentored the staff on an informal basis. It wasn’t part of my job, nor was it expected from me. But I did it because no one else stepped into this role in the organization.
In many ways, I felt obligated to share my story with others. I had spent the last two years writing this blog about how to improve the workplace. Shared stories about my failed working relationships. Even wrote an entire series on what I wish I knew starting off my career! So with this background, written down or otherwise, I knew I had to talk about how to build a work environment that worked for the workers.
Lesson Learned: See Your Own Potential to Be a Mentor
This relationship became more apparent when, on my return, one of the women I worked with said the interns asked her who would be this person for them now? I told her – it’s you! She paused for a second before saying, “But I have nothing to add.” I disagreed with her.
I reminded her that the lessons she learned to get to this point in her career were worthy of sharing. She was already someone they trusted to share this with, why not ask them questions about what else they needed. I challenged her to lean into the discomfort of taking the initiative since the interns were primed for a mentor. And I reminded her that relationship building didn’t need to be so formal, but could happen over a cup of coffee.
I framed the mentoring role as acting as the mentor she wanted or needed when she began her career those many years ago.
And I believe she understood that idea.
I encourage you, right here, right now, to think about how you can also step into a mentoring role in your organization or workplace.
Tips for Being a Good Mentor
Informal mentoring roles can take many different shapes and iterations. It could be as simple as checking in with folks as you walk past their desks. Asking questions about stressful projects. Providing positive feedback or instructional short-cuts to complete the work. Sharing stories that show vulnerability and doubt. Or simply listening with empathy.
Sean Peek, in 5 Ways to Become a Better Mentor, reminds us that not all people are capable of being a mentor. Other than having the work skills or knowledge to help people in a given field, mentors should have “people skills and the ability to teach at an individual level. You need to be able to read a person to know whether a teaching approach is working. Sometimes, you just need to be a career coach. Other times, you have to be a listener and, sometimes, a source of practiced wisdom on how to avoid mistakes. To know which approach is the best, you have to be able to discuss the situation with the mentee and choose the best path forward to develop that person’s skills and careers.”
Below is a summary of tips offered from across the internet.
Listen with Intent
Your mentee should ultimately oversee their own career path. You help them achieve whatever it is they want to achieve. Don’t inject too much of your own desires or opinions into their plan. Ask them about their aspirations as well as their expectations of you. For example, are they looking for support, guidance or insight? (5 Ways to Become a Better Mentor)
One of the core actions a mentor can take is to ask their mentee questions. When you ask questions, you are looking for clarity, searching for meaning, trying to help the mentee find patterns, and guiding them on a path of self-discovery. You never want your mentee to become dependent on you; you want them to be able to eventually outgrow their need for you. By teaching them to ask questions of themselves, the situations they’re facing, and the choices they’ll make, you are giving them the tools they need to be independent and successful. (7 Tips About How to Mentor Someone)
Sometimes, though, the best thing a mentor can do is just listen—but there is a caveat. That doesn’t mean you don’t ask questions, tell stories, or any of the other things suggested here, but you should be conscious of the times when your mentee needs for you to stop talking and start listening. As you listen, do so with compassion. (7 Tips About How to Mentor Someone)
Be Willing to Offer Criticism Without Deflating Confidence
You want to be uplifting, but it’s important for a mentor to be honest with the person they’re mentoring and to share the things they can do to improve. It’s not about telling people what they want to hear. If I’m mentoring someone who’s stuck in a rut, I can be a shoulder for them to lean on. But I also want to let them know they need to take action, so I’ll talk about the specific things they need to accomplish as next steps before we talk again. (How to Be a Mentor in the Workplace and in Life)
While you don’t want to judge or offend your mentee, you shouldn’t filter your feedback to avoid hurting them, either. There is a way to deliver criticism without breaking their confidence. Sharing your experience is a great way to send a message without criticizing them directly. For example, tell them about a mistake you made and how you learned from it. If the mentee is savvy, they will see the comparison and the subtle message: “Don’t do what I did, and here’s why.” The point is to educate, not tear down the person.
If your employee becomes sensitive or defensive, be as supportive as possible. Again, draw from your own experiences to explain a time you had a slip-up, or simply redirect their attention to the progress and achievements they’ve made thus far. Self-deprecating humor is powerful in disarming a defensive mentee and getting them to listen again. (5 Ways to Become a Better Mentor)
Make It Personal and Relevant
A great way to convey an idea is by sharing a story. Stories offer a way for you to connect with your mentee and show them that you understand what they are going through. It also shows your mentee that they are not alone nor is their situation unique. Someone has been through this before and navigated through the resulting challenges. Stories also allow you to build a personal connection with the mentee by showing a vulnerable side of yourself. This most effectively takes place when you share a story in which you failed or struggled. These can be great ways to help illustrate how things can be turned around and how a positive outcome can come from a negative circumstance. (7 Tips About How to Mentor Someone)
Mentors should set a good example and also provide examples. When I get together with the people I mentor at work, for instance, I talk about real-life situations, with anecdotes about what I’ve been through or how I reached a goal or overcame a hurdle. I offer my insights and share my experiences. Depending on how well I know the person, I also remind them of their own history and what they’ve achieved. (How to Be a Mentor in the Workplace and in Life)
Mentoring Goes Both Ways
When I talked to my former colleague, she asked me where my confidence in this role came from. I told her, honestly, it stemmed from my need for this role when I began in my field but I had no one to talk to. I spent the first ten years of my career trying to figure it out on my own, which led to some troublesome work environments. With some experience, I now wanted to help people avoid my own journey when possible.
But I was also very clear that my mentoring others helped me process out loud what many process internally.
Peek shares, “If you and the mentee share your hopes and desires for the relationship, you’ll be able to establish a mutually valuable dynamic. Mentoring is not a one-sided conversation; it is an open discussion that encourages thoughts, questions, and concerns.” As much as the staff gained from my authentic and transparent approach to mentoring, I gained clarity of purpose and reinforced my experiences as tools for learning. The reciprocal nature of the role made my journey feel important and valid, even when the experiences at the time were painful and unsettling.
My Current Mentoring Role
In many ways, I have used my informal mentoring roles to learn more about supervising people I haven’t experienced working with yet. For example. I volunteer as a mentor for graduate students currently enrolled my alma mater’s master’s degree program. For the last two years I have met virtually with current students to offer advice and career search strategies.
It’s been very rewarding, both for the students and for me. Personally, it’s been amazing learning more about the current student populations and how they differ from the last cohort of students I worked with. Plus I am learning how to navigate a world that now builds relationships and educates others in the Zoom environment. I’m able to try things out and receive feedback, as I would offer to the students when they ask questions too. As a veteran in the field where they want to start their career, I am hoping to role model behaviors they can take into the working world.
I plan to circle back with my colleagues, during lunches and happy hours, to check in with them. While my formal relationship with them has ended for the second time, my mentoring role has really just begun. And I am looking forward to this relationship continuing for both of us!
Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional
I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.