People I meet at networking meetings often ask me ‘what is it like to work with a mentor?’ It has happened so often that I almost have it down to a regular patter. I try to help them understand the nature and purpose of a mentor and work through some of the common misunderstandings that people have. I also focus on the difference between a mentor and a coach. Most of them have a general ides of what mentoring means – mostly using sports metaphors – and what it entails. However, they do not have a clear idea of how a mentoring works and what is involved. They do have a sense that mentoring might make a real-world difference in the lives, careers and fortunes of people and businesses that they know. However, the ‘how’ eludes them.
Truth be known, I like to talk about mentoring. Over the years, many good mentors have helped me and have been able to make substantial contributions to the lives and fortunes of many others. If you were considering hiring an mentor, here are a few things that you might want to keep in mind.
- Mentoring will only work when you are willing to allow it to work. While you may intellectually realize the benefits of mentoring, you may not be interested or willing to admit you need help. As a mentor, I cannot help someone to change who is not interested in or willing to change. Mentoring is all about change.
- A good mentoring relationship is long-term. When you click with a mentor, a completely new world opens up. Much like a trusted family doctor or friend, you want to continue the relationship as long as it is delivering significant value.
- Always remember that mentors works with you but the burden of doing the heavy lifting in yours. Good mentors tend to steer clear of relationships that are not cumulative. The really good ones don’t like to waste their time.
- Experience – life experience – is the measure of a mentor. It’s hard to help someone make a journey when you haven’t made it yourself. Seek out people with vast experience. It will pay off big time.
- Courage – mentors that can help you make a transformational journey do not shy away from ‘adult conversations’. They have the courage and experience to force the focus outside of your comfort zone.
- Cheap mentoring is never good mentoring. Lots of people I meet claim to have mentors. But, when I ask them for details, they seem to have drinking buddies. Good mentoring is very hard work. Both of you are focusing on your life and what you should be doing with it. Such a topic is not one to be pursued casually.
If you want to work with a mentor on issues that you consider so private that you do not want them shared with the company you work for, then you need to hire a mentor directly. If you are participating in a company sponsored mentoring program, remember that management may have input on the structure and duration of the engagement – as well as on how and where mentoring is delivered – and on the definition of mentoring success. Many times, there are no conflicts of interest. However, if your company is going to pay for the engagement, remember that they will have some say in how the process goes.
- Mentoring can focus on client-centered issues – such are habits, communication patterns, self-discipline or concepts of leadership – or on external challenges like organization, goals, strategy, and execution of processes. The true definition of mentoring success lies in progress with both. That includes the management of the smaller things, assigning the correct roles to people, commitment to a development of strategies, communication, management and the proper use of delegation. The ability to improve the smaller things will roll into the development of the larger one automatically, so remember to allow the coach room to work on both.
- Mentors must deliver. A mentor should be a ‘performance mentor’. It is imperative that mentoring goals contain the ‘what’ (for example, project success) as well as the ‘how’ of qualitative behavior modification (such as improved communication skills). Mentoring is often grounded in the work that is on the client’s desk and guided by business needs. If that is the case, it should be explicitly states at the very beginning.
- Mentors should not be ‘nice’ and the mentoring experience should, at times, be uncomfortable. The best mentors practice tough love, the reality is that a client does not like to change and needs a strong influence to make it happen. Any of my clients will tell you how difficult and how beneficial mentoring has been for them. A good mentoring session will be stimulating and exhausting. Most of my clients look forward to the beginning and end of each session but not so much the items needing to be changed or the work that needs to be done.
As with any line of work, there is a wide range of mentors. When you decide to find a mentor, do your homework. It is critical that you feel comfortable in the relationship. If you have done your research properly, you have an excellent chance at embarking on a highly productive and enlightening relationship.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD