Be the mentor you wish you had

Mentoring and coaching have become increasingly popular and both concepts have been associated with improvement, progress and the achievement of personal and career goals. Both have their own distinct processes and methodologies, but in essence, coaches use questions instead of suggestions to keep people responsible and moving forward. Coaches don’t advise but will explore alternatives in problem solving and facilitate greater self- awareness for improvement and personal efficiency.

Although the coach may or may not have experience in the particular field that the mentor is in, his/her role is to facilitate the process whereby the coachee generates his/her own possibilities (what they are willing and deem able to do). After the clients’ resourcefulness has been tapped into, the coach may add some alternatives to the “pot” (with permission from his/her client). This does not mean that the coach is an innocent, quiet bystander, but rather “negotiate and exchange” information of relevance to the topic at hand. This ensures that the coachee makes key choices and has ownership of the solution.

Mentors on the other hand are skilled/proficient individuals that have travelled the road. They may offer their unique learning experiences in a relationship of trust. Over time the mentor becomes a friend, a source of wisdom, support and inspiration to his/her mentee.

I have always recommended for those seeking mentoring or coaching to identify the professional and personal objectives that they wish to fulfil. If for example, an individual wants to improve their personal branding; speak with greater confidence; or be more aware of their impact as a leader — they should seek the services of an experienced coach. If an individual wants guidance and support to prepare for their next career steps, or if they are looking for wisdom and insight on how to get things done in the business or advice on how to achieve better work-life balance at an executive level, they can enlist the help of a mentor who will share their experience and offer advice and inspiration to do just that.

Young and old, be it graduates or future leaders, we all face greater challenges in a volatile, uncertain and complex world and the pace of learning is forever accelerating with massive (and often hidden) risks and opportunities. Mentoring is a time-honoured practice that has served generations well, but the process of mentoring now requires more than an ad-hoc get together for a cup of coffee. In some ways it needs to become a more intentional activity where the experienced mentor guides and leads the mentee as to “how things are done in the environment; what are the do’s and don’ts, etc. There is most certainly more at stake and mentors should recognise the significance of their potential role. As with most things, there are good mentors and there are not-so-good mentors. So, what can you do to be a better mentor for others? A good starting point is to Strive to be the mentor you wish you had.

Over the past 20 years, we have observed mentoring relationships of various sorts in different industries. We have seen some mentor-mentee relationships succeed and others miserably fail. We are convinced that there are qualities that distinguish truly good and helpful mentors from those who are indifferent – or even harmful. Every individual reading this will argue their views on the core mentor qualities that are key to successful relationships. The list could be endless and may include; good listener, value diversity, knowledgeable, non-judgmental, able to give constructive feedback, honest and candid, role model, able to network and successful in career. Based on our experience, here are five qualities that can assist you to be the mentor you wish you had.

1. Selflessness and a spirit of generosity

I like to call this characteristic simply “the heart of mentoring”. People like to be around people they trust – it’s as simple as that. People are attracted and want to associate themselves with those people who characterize an element of selflessness. Creating that human connection – building trust – is key, though it does take time. Just remember: Mentors are responsible for setting that tone but it takes two to tango.
This means that you are willing to share your experiences to help someone else fulfil their greatest potential. This is the marvel of mentoring…when we recognise the unfulfilled potential in someone and we commit to a relationship to help others grow, believe it or not, we are the ones that grow more than we expect.

When we only work towards our own cause and success, it creates a sense of self centeredness and we cannot expect others to help us. An abundance mentality, on the other hand, combined with a willingness to share know-how and help others, in turn, results in a reciprocal relationship where both mentor and mentee gains. In so doing mentoring becomes profitable and attractive as a relationship, viable for the company, relevant to the business and personally meaningful to mentor and mentee.

Being a mentor is a lifestyle decision. It means you have the right “heart” willing to invest your precious time for the benefit of others. Great mentors want their mentees to succeed, and they actively support their mentee’s success with words and action. Real mentors will never be envious or feel threatened by their mentee’s growth; they celebrate achievements and encourage learning from setbacks. A generous mentor will facilitate connections and relationships or offer resources that could be useful. Most important, a generous mentor believes in their mentee’s potential and urge him/her to become the person they want to become.

2. Increased self-awareness

I have often cautioned organisations about hiring or promoting the most talented and brightest individual when they do not possess the personal and social skills needed to be an effective manager or leader. Research indicates that self-awareness and self-management are absolutely essential to authentic leadership.

Self-awareness is also one of the hallmarks of a good mentor. It is a quality that eludes most leaders because they rarely find the time to step back from their thoughts and busy schedules. It is not something gained by completing a once-off personality assessment that tags you with a particular profile. It is rather a process of reflection that takes place over years. It is a continual checking back in with yourself to see where you are at and what is important to you. It is also about understanding yourself, how you are perceived by others and what your current strengths and weaknesses are.

Being aware of one’s strengths, weaknesses, style, personality, preferences, etc., has a significant impact on how mentors behave and interact with others. It enables them to work with others who have different qualities or strengths to them, they are more likely to accept the idea that someone else may have better ideas than their own and therefore benefit from that.

If you want to be an effective mentor, study and learn about your best leadership tool; yourself. Reflect upon the impact your interactions have on others. Listen to the feedback that others offer on your behaviour and style. Regularly ask for candid feedback from others.

3. Genuine interest in supporting the development of a mentee

You can only mentor someone if you have an intimate understanding of who they are and what is important to them. Knowing someone at work is only one part of who they are. When a mentor shows appreciation for their mentee’s goals, dreams, aspiration, wishes and values, it allows him/her to offer insights and advice that are more than generic wisdom. The advice they offer would be with a spirit of empathy and understanding, tailored for their mentee’s needs and mindful of the mentee’s unique circumstances. A recent mentee in Mining was thrilled to be matched with a very well connected and experienced executive in her organization. After the first few months of being impressed by the big names and personal achievements/experiences the mentor boasted about, the mentee realized her mentor knew nothing about her, and wasn’t sharing anything much that she could find helpful to her own specific career.

4. The skill of multiplication

Have you ever had a true mentor? Someone so amazing, who you held the deepest, most authentic respect for. Someone who poured him or herself into you and your professional journey. If that rings true for you, you will agree that it is someone who not only shaped you professionally, but who played a vital role in getting you to do more, someone who you didn’t want to disappoint or fail. They believed in you, stretched and challenged you to facilitate growth with regards to your own strengths and capabilities.

Mentoring is most definitely not about winning a popularity contest. There is a side to mentoring which is about results, about improvement, about becoming more. The core question that started the multiplier notion is “Why do some people become smarter, even brilliant, around a great mentor or leader?”

Multipliers make you think. Their infectious curiosity and passion to learn more make you want to know more, to question, and to find out why. Mentor multipliers give you data so you can think for yourself. They co-create ideas, spark interest in topics and encourage “out of the box thinking and innovation”. They drive rigorous debate and get people to take ownership for results. This provides the answer to “why we are smart and capable around some people but not around others.”
Liz Wiseman sums it up beautifully “The real leadership skill of the next decade isn’t what you know. It is how well you can access what other people know. As a leader, spend less time telling everyone what you know. Instead, ask questions that will challenge and uncover the knowledge in the people around you.”

5. To be an intentional mentor

I recall my most valuable learning experiences, which have all been when I have had the opportunity to be part of a small group or project team for the sole purpose of brainstorming, sharing ideas and discussing trends or problem-solving. Mentors need to think less training and conferences and more exposure and on-the-job learning. The bulk of learning (70%) happens through observation and hands on experience; “You don’t learn how to swim by sitting next to a pool reading a book on swimming”.
Intentional mentors understand this important concept and are opportunistic to create or plan ‘purposeful’ and ‘deliberate’ conversations and exposure.

Mentoring is about building confidence. Intentional mentors are pragmatic and will seek out learning opportunities wherever they can. This does not mean that they take the responsibility for their mentees’ development, but they show an understanding of, and a commitment to, their mentees’ development needs. They could be valuable soundboards during challenging assignments or high stake projects. They could also make themselves available to attend or observe, allowing more accurate feedback for their mentees. Intentional mentors will not hesitate to connect or exploit their own network to help their mentees.

Lastly, intentional mentors don’t hesitate to raise topics or conversations that will be crucial to their mentee’s development. Deep meaningful conversations will create new levels of self- awareness and opportunities for their mentees on both a personal and professional level.

In conclusion…

If you are like most mentors I know, you would want to be the best you can be, either by your own definition or by the impact you have made in the lives of others. Many people struggle with a specific model of what “a great mentor” looks like. I hope that this read offers a different opinion about the qualities of great mentors. Possibly it serves as a guide for an aspiring mentee who considers a new mentor or serves as a confirmation for a seasoned mentor.

Having a mentor can be helpful; having a mentor who is generous, self-aware, have a genuine interest, multiplies your gifts and talents and who are intentional, can be life-changing.

By the way; the reward for mentoring others is to see them achieve more than they thought they could or even just to be there when they scale their mountain. If this doesn’t excite you, well then maybe mentoring should be a privilege reserved for those willing to make time to mentor, who make others feel they matter.

Written by: Niel Steinmann

Author of Raising giant killers and Guiding and leading Crucial Mentoring Conversations