If you’ve excelled in your career in any way, you likely had help from other professionals. Maybe a contact from college connected you with your first internship, or a seasoned colleague at your entry-level job helped set you up for a promotion. Most people in the business world start at the bottom and work their way up, but they don’t often do it alone.
Mentors are individuals who help coach less experienced professionals, offering guidance when it comes to the skills required to do the job, as well as the more intangible aspects of navigating the professional world. Mentors provide an extremely important transfer of knowledge within your organization so that the next generation doesn’t spend valuable time repeating some of the mistakes made by others. By being a mentor, you provide a sounding board for rising stars to learn from prior direction and experience so that they can make better decisions in similar scenarios.
To be a mentor, it’s important to have the relevant experience and communications skills needed to effectively coach someone. Sometimes, you need to be a career coach. Other times, you just have to be a listener or even an advisor 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.
Mentorship is important for imparting skills and wisdom to new professionals, as well as building a culture of support and teamwork throughout a company. In fact, employee retention rates for those with mentors are much higher than their non-mentored counterparts, at 72% to 49%. And employees who are mentored are five times more likely to attain promotions compared to those who are not.
“Mentors are incredibly valuable, not just for providing guidance and training to a new person; they are also reassuring,” said James Nuttall, content executive at Irwin Mitchell. “A mentor has been the new kid on the block and understands the stresses and fears that come with that position. For this reason, they remember how they felt when [they were] in that position and [are, therefore,] able to guide another person through the journey.”
Nearly 9 in 10 mentored employees will also go on to mentor others, making mentorship especially valuable for reinforcing a culture of sharing knowledge and relationship building within your company. Even if mentored employees move on and leave the company for a new role, 94% reported that mentorship programs demonstrated an organization’s commitment to its employees — which can help bolster new employee recruitment efforts to attract top talent.
Mentorship programs help improve employee engagement and productivity on the job, but also offer improved employee retention, better recruitment, and long-lasting relationships that extend even beyond an employee’s tenure with the company.
Some important traits in a good mentor include patience and listening skills. The most effective mentors take in what’s happening, assess the path the mentee is on and then guide the person onto the right track. Mentoring is as much about counseling as it is transferring knowledge and leadership skills. That takes practice, and the mentor has to be willing to let the mentee make mistakes and try guiding them again.
You also should develop mentor relationships with those you think would make a good match. Here are five ways to become a good mentor:
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?
Make sure to target your approach. For instance, maybe you want to help someone who’s experiencing a similar situation as you did, or perhaps you want to give someone opportunities they don’t have access to.
“Define what … your mentee should get out of a mentoring relationship with you and why you want to mentor,” said Sarah Deane, founder of EffectUX. “This will enable you to set expectations, agree on the goals of the relationship and maintain healthy boundaries that respect the relationship.”
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.
This must also happen without judgment. If your mentee feels too insecure to ask a question, you need to find a way to earn their trust and build their confidence. Communication is 99% of a quality mentor-mentee relationship. If the two of you can’t clearly share ideas, thoughts, opinions and feedback, then it defeats the purpose of the relationship. A mentee needs to be able to confide in the mentor. Without this trust and effective communication, the relationship will not succeed.
“It is important to understand a mentee’s challenges, goals, desires and feelings so that you can best support them, engage with them and encourage them,” Deane said.
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.
Nuttall said you should be diplomatic and tactful when addressing your concerns. Instead of noting only the mentee’s mistakes or shortcomings, point out something positive, and then offer guidance to improve their work.
“Whoever you are mentoring isn’t going to get everything right on the first attempt, so you need to be able to [provide] feedback constructively but effectively to ensure that they improve and progress,” Nuttall said.
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.
It’s important to relate to your mentees and understand their perspective and feelings. If they’re having a bad day, you should pick up on their energy and work to help them through it.
“Empathy is a vital character trait of a good mentor,” Nuttall said. “You should be able to understand how your protege is feeling and how to best approach guiding them.”
You might think empathy cannot be taught, but with practice, you can achieve higher levels. This requires effort: listening more; being curious about others; appreciating those who are different from you; illuminating any innate judgments; and educating yourself to break false stigmas and ignorant notions.
For instance, you can’t expect everyone to progress at the same rate you did. You have different strengths, interests, backgrounds and experiences; be careful not to project immediate expectations onto your mentee. A common mistake mentors in very technical fields make is assuming a rising-star mentee in the same field will perform, think and act the same way as the mentor did. What might have been the challenge to pass for your generation may not be necessary or applicable now. Don’t judge a mentee because they didn’t go through the same meat grinder you did to get a promotion.
Times change, and so do organizations. If you can put aside your own feelings about how hard things may have been for you, you can speak far more clearly to someone who was able to avoid that challenge and still rise to the same role and expectations.
“This can sometimes be easier said than done, which is why patience is also an essential virtue of an effective mentor. Not everyone is going to grasp everything as quickly as you did, and not everyone is going to find your working method to be the most effective method for them,” Nuttall said.
If your process isn’t helping, change it. Adapt as you go, and include your mentee in decisions.
Because you “know better,” it might be tempting to take the wheel while your mentee rides shotgun. This is not how your relationship should operate. Your job as the mentor is to help a mentee learn their role, not do it for them.
One of the most important skills the mentee needs to develop, with your guidance, is the ability to think on the spot with competing demands and high pressure. Some call it creativity; others call it common sense. Whatever you call it, your mentee has to be able to solve problems on the fly. Your role as a mentor is to help them develop those skills.
Think of yourself as a driving instructor: You’re sitting in the passenger’s side, allowing your mentee full control of the journey. However, you’re still there to offer advice and directions or to pull the emergency brake if needed.
“Add an element of autonomy to your structure once you have established a good relationship and trust level with the person you are mentoring,” Nuttall said. “Give them some responsibility, and allow them to make their own decisions in certain aspects of the job. This will encourage them to think for themselves and improve their confidence, showing you have faith in them.”
If you believe in your mentees, and you make that clear to them by allowing them control, they will have much more faith in both you and themselves.
Your mentee can learn a lot simply by observing and learning from your words and actions. They can pick up on how you behave and interact with others or a certain task at hand. If you’re stuck on a project, your mentee can watch to see how you react to any obstacles that may come your way. If you’re negatively influenced by this task and it shows in your behavior, you may end up pushing the mentee away or allowing them to see a side they start to believe is acceptable.
To set your mentee on the right path, show them multiple ways of handling difficult situations and talk them through your process. Let them know that they have a choice to how they react to bad news or a failed project. This can be talking to their supervisor when they made a mistake or learning how to regroup when they’ve failed a task. With your experience, they can recognize the reactions that will hinder them or help them throughout any difficult time.
Being a positive role model is equally true when you’re dealing with a good situation, or one that favors you. It’s important to demonstrate the positive situation with wisdom and forward thinking, showing how you’d like to receive more of these experiences and what actions you can take to make that a reality. [Related: How to Find a Mentor]
You can also show humility in positive situations, meaning that you don’t let success make you forget about the overall picture. This can be the downfall of many mentors, when they push for success over learning experiences. A mentee can see this happening and allow themselves to go down a path filled with half-earned successes. If you too have been down this path, explain to your mentee how you learned from it and what you would do differently. Sharing your learning experience is a sign of both a good mentor and positive role model.
However, it’s important to allow your mentee to make their own mistakes, even as they learn valuable lessons from observing and learning from your own experiences.
Building mentorship opportunities into the normal workflow doesn’t just help employees get up to speed and do a better job at work — it also makes them feel valued, strengthens relationships amongst team members, and bolsters retention rates. Moreover, even after team members move on, mentorship programs increase the likelihood that they refer their own mentees (some of whom may be talented interns preparing to enter the job market) to your company, improving your recruitment efforts and establishing your brand as a great place to work. Overall, the time invested in establishing a mentorship program in your company will pay dividends in many ways.