There are a lot of misconceptions about what it takes to be a mentor. In my early 20s, I was asked to mentor a few business students at my alma mater. I was barely into my career, and I remember thinking that I needed to study and prepare lesson plans. My job was to give sage wisdom and advice, to be an expert and a teacher, to have all the right answers and to say all the right things because, after all, their success depended on me, right?
It’s OK to not have all of the answers. As a mentor, we can serve as guides and facilitators on someone’s journey of self-discovery.
I was wrong. I thought back to one of the most impactful mentors in my life: my high school masonry instructor, Mr. Braxton. Early in our relationship, he told me that he saw something special in me and asked me to participate in some student leadership activities. I didn’t believe him and I declined his offer. Instead of spending the next four years trying to convince me that what he said was true, he spent the next four years listening, understanding, and setting up opportunities and experiences to allow me to discover my own potential. It was from him that I learned four actions leaders can take to be impactful mentors.
- Be present.
Mentoring is an active relationship. Being present doesn’t mean being on call 24/7, but it does mean having regular communication and setting aside dedicated, distraction-free time to focus completely on your mentee. After nearly 20 years, Mr. Braxton’s active listening, questions, recall of previous conversations and dialogue still lets me know that I have his undivided attention every time we talk.
- Be inquisitive.
One of the most important roles of a mentor is to consistently ask questions. This helps the mentee dig deeper into their own understanding of themselves, their motives and their desires. The question “why?” is one of the strongest tools in any mentor tool kit. An education mentor of mine always emphasizes how much more impactful and lasting learning is when we let students discover and articulate a concept on their own versus giving them the answer and explanation. One path leads to internalization and understanding while the other simply leads to recall and repetition.
- Be aware.
As mentors, we have to be aware of what our mentees are saying they need, either directly or indirectly. While we don’t have to be experts in their field of interest, we do have to be able to recognize when our mentee needs experiences or insights that only experts in certain fields may be able to provide. At that point, it’s our job to make connections and introductions to those who can help. My masonry instructor wasn’t a professional speaker (though he was an amazing talker) and his career wasn’t in nonprofit management. However, he helped me immensely in those areas by connecting me with people and experiences to help guide, develop and inform me. His goal was to help me discover what I loved to do and connect me to people and opportunities that could help move me in that direction.
- Be a model.
Being a mentor is a significant position of leadership. Whether your position is C-suite or entry-level, the moment you become a mentor, you have taken on a position of leadership. As with any aspect of leadership, congruence between our words and our actions is essential in establishing trust and providing validity for guidance. If we expect our mentee to be willing to lean in, think deeply, and reflect and act on introspective questions, we have to be willing to model and do the same. Be prepared to answer the same questions you are asking your mentee. While the sessions are about the mentee and not the mentor, being willing to show your openness and vulnerability can be critical to establishing trust. Going through that process ourselves helps us develop empathy and prepares us to have a much richer conversation with our mentees.
It’s OK to not have all of the answers. As a mentor, we can serve as guides and facilitators on someone’s journey of self-discovery. Being present, inquisitive and aware as we model that commitment will help them find their answers.