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 promotion. Most people in the business world start at the bottom and work their way up, but they don't often do it alone.
Now that you're more established and comfortable in your career, it's time to pay it back. Your journey can inspire and guide others; a rewarding next step is to become a mentor.
"Mentors are incredibly valuable, not just for providing guidance and training to a new person; they are also reassuring," said James Nuttall, content manager at It Works Media. "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."
First, you'll want to develop mentor relationships with those you think would make a good match. From there, you can work on improving your mentoring approach and investing your time and heart in your professional relationships. Here are four ways to become a good mentor.
1. Communicate and listen.
Your mentee should ultimately oversee their own career path. You exist to 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 and what they want and expect from you, be it support, guidance, insight, etc.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't add your personality to the relationship. Rather, channel your own intentions in the matter to help your mentee get ahead. For instance, maybe you want to help someone who's in the same boat you once were in, or perhaps you want to give someone opportunities they don't have access to due to limited resources. Your passion must be evident in your endeavor – your objectives should be pure but also benefit you in some way.
"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 each 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.
"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," said Deane.
2. Offer constructive criticism.
While you don't want to judge or offend your mentee, you also shouldn't filter your feedback to avoid hurting them. There is a way to deliver criticism without breaking their spirits.
Nuttall said you should be diplomatic and tactful when addressing your concerns. Instead of only noting their mistakes or shortcomings, point out something positive, then offer guidance to improve their work further.
"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," he said.
If your employee becomes sensitive or defensive, be as supportive as possible. 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.
3. Practice empathy.
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. You should be able to understand how your protege is feeling and how to best approach guiding them," said Nuttall.
You might think empathy cannot be taught, but with practice, you can achieve higher levels of empathy. 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 and background/experience; be careful not to project immediate expectations onto your mentee.
"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," said Nuttall.
If your process isn't helping, change it up. Adapt as you go and include your mentee in every decision you make.
4. Let your mentor make 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.
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," said Nuttall. "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 mentee, and you make that clear to them by allowing them control, they will have much more faith in both you and themselves.