Mentoring is a much talked about topic for leadership development, but I am uncertain how it is understood. I have heard people say that “Everyone is my mentor” or “I mentor everyone”, both of which are misnomers. To be an effective mentor, a person must have a certain mindset. For me, that mindset is not that it is all about the mentor, or all about the mentee, but,
It’s all about the relationship.
Mentoring is based on a developmental relationship that can occur in one of four phases: Youth, academic, workplace, or reflective. That relationship can be voluntary and informal between someone of greater experience, with someone of lesser experience, based on mutual trust and respect (Allen & Eby, 2007; DA, 2007). I have found that of all the essential elements of mentoring: experience, voluntary, trust, respect, and relationship, the mentor’s mindset must focus on the relationship. My mindset as a mentor is based on a few qualities that I respect:
1. Understand your foundation for mentoring. A mentor must have some well-established premise for mentoring. With over 50 different definitions of mentoring, a mentor merely needs to pick one, study it, become conversant in it, and stay with it. I combined the US Army mentoring definition with the Allen and Eby framework from The Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring.
2. Understand and dispel the Mentoring Myths. One mentoring myth is that you can mentor everyone, which is patently false based on Leon’s Law of Mentoring. Leon’s Law states that “You cannot mentor everyone one, because you do not like everyone, and everyone does not like you” (Williams, 2008, PC). We tend NOT to listen to those we do not like or connect with, so the same is true for the mentoring relationship.
3. Understand Your Why. If you do not understand your Why when it comes to mentoring, do not mentor. There is well documented evidence that a dysfunctional mentoring relationship can do more harm than good.
4. Understand the Commitment. Mentoring is not an easy endeavor, and takes time, talent, and treasure on the part of both the mentor and mentee. If you cannot commit to a mentee, do not start the relationship. If a mentee does not commit their time, talent, and treasure to you: Next customer. No need to invest in someone who will not invest in themselves.
5. Understand the Responsibilities. Whether the relationship is formal or informal, both mentor and mentee have responsibilities. Make sure both parties are clear on those responsibilities. I always tell my mentees that I expect a self-assessment, some sort of career progression or goal and action plan, and to tell me what they expect from me.
6. Understand What a Mentor Can Do. A mentor can provide the leadership, sponsorship, and fellowship that a mentee otherwise lacks in a personal or professional setting. Mentors need to know what they can and cannot provide to the mentee.
7. Understand the Mentee’s Needs. All mentoring relationships are different after the initial courtship period. Mentees want to be treated in a unique manner, different from anyone else. That is why they came to you.
8. Understand the Mentee’s Why in Pursuing You. Know why your mentee sought your expertise. I believe that I selected one mentee in my life, and I worked like a prisoner on a chain gang to make it work. Every mentee that selected me as a mentor, and pursued the relationship, the relationship flourished.
9. Understand the Nuances in Relationships. Knowing the other person is part of the nuances in relationships. Mentees who challenge me get my best. All my mentees like to be challenged, my direct approach, and the lack of recrimination. I cheer not chastise my mentees. They have bosses for chastisement.
10. Understand How to Communicate. Over or under-communications can sometimes become miscommunications. In a good mentoring relationship, each member knows just how much or how little to communicate, but this may take time. A mentor must understand how much space a mentee needs to absorb the guidance, and not overdo the communications piece.
As you can probably tell by now, I am big on understanding in the mentoring relationship, but will save that for another day. Those 10 qualities are what I used and refined for over 35 years of mentoring, and all contributed to cultivating the mentoring relationship. So,
What’s Your Mentor Mindset?
Allen, T. D. & Eby, L. T. (2007). The blackwell handbook on mentoring. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Department of the Army (DA). (2007). Army leadership (AR 600-100). Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army.
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It’s All About the Relationship