Articles & Tips

Mentoring 101

By Judith Lindenberger

Mentoring is a mutually agreed upon relationship between an experienced veteran and someone less experienced. Words such as friend, listener, cheerleader, tutor, confidant and advisor can all be used to describe a mentoring relationship. Typically, a mentor is someone within an organization that has the skills and knowledge a protégé needs as well as the time and willingness to help the protégé achieve his or her goals. Mentors can inspire you to meet challenges and achieve success. They enable you to see a wider realm of opportunities, and they provide valuable advice to help you excel in your career.

Mentoring is not a new concept. The original Mentor surfaced in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. When Odysseus (King of Ithaca) went to fight in the Trojan War, he entrusted the ruling of his kingdom to Mentor. While Odysseus was gone, Mentor served as the teacher and overseer of Tlemachus, Odysseus's’ son. Thus the start of what we now know as mentoring. Through the years, the definition of mentor has relatively stayed the same. According to The Merriam –Webster dictionary, a mentor is defined as “a trusted counselor or guide.”

Powerful things happen when a respected, experienced person shows interest in and goes out of his/her way to help another individual develop, especially when that individual is open to being influenced. Mentors can inspire you to meet challenges and achieve success. They enable you to see a wider realm of opportunities, and they provide valuable advice to help you excel in your career.

When asked what helped them achieve success, most CEOs point to a person or persons who have helped them along the way. You can make it without a mentor but it takes too much time. Mentoring has been reported to help new employees acclimate more quickly to the organization, reduce turnover, prepare mid-level managers and executives to move successfully into senior level positions, help minority workers advance, and enhance women’s development to the senior level.

About ten years ago, at my first performance review with a new boss, she told me: “Judy, you do a great job but if you want to get ahead you have to learn to be more strategic.” Ouch. I wasn’t even sure what strategic meant at the time. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, asking my boss how she learned to be strategic, and getting books on the subject in the library. But one conversation with my boss, a definition from Webster’s, and a few books weren’t doing it for me. I started asking who in the organization had the reputation of being a strategic thinker. Two names kept floating about. I called the first guy – a very senior person in the organization – and asked if I could pick his brain about strategic thinking. He readily agreed but after two hours I walked out more confused than when I had walked in. I called the second guy – also a senior person in the organization – and he agreed to meet with me. We started a conversation that has lasted years. He become a mentor to me and helped me learn to think strategically, to anticipate what the other guy might do, and to make better decisions based on facts and informed predictions. Also, Don opened a door for me that helped me leave the corporate world and become an entrepreneur.

In addition to what my mentor did for me, mentors can:

  • Help you gain a different perspective on a situation
  • Provide tips/insight on the organizations culture
  • Help you develop skills and knowledge
  • Assist with developing strategies to approach different situations
  • Increase your network
  • Help you work through your career goals and a plan to achieving them

So how do you find yourself a great mentor? The first step is to honestly figure out what you must be better out. I got lucky. My boss told me. If you haven’t gotten that kind of honest feedback from your boss, ask for it, and be prepared that it might hurt at first. It did for me! Or ask your co-workers or your subordinates. Next, go looking for someone who can teach you what you want to learn. I didn’t ask Don to be my mentor when I called him which is kind of like asking a man to marry you on the first date. Instead, I told him why I sought him out and asked if he would share his wisdom with me. Lesson: take mentoring relationships slowly, let them grow over time, and don’t ask for the moon. And, the best mentoring relationships are voluntary on both people’s parts.

What if someone asks you to be their mentor? It is the mirror reflection of getting a great mentor. Determine if the person is serious. Decide if you have the ability to help them learn what they want to learn. And, decide if you have time.

The first few meetings between a mentor and protégé should be a time to get to know one another as people and a time to decide how to manage the relationship. It is critical that you talk about goals, how often you plan to meet, and agreements about keeping confidences. Mentoring relationships can fail because of mismatching, lack of commitment, lack of time or lack of trust.

In studies done on mentoring, and in my own experience as a consultant helping organizations create mentoring programs, I have learned that mentors get as much satisfaction from mentoring relationships, if not more, than protégés. Mentors report that they gain a different perspective of the organization, feel good about giving back to the organization, and enjoy helping someone else manage their career. Mentoring is all about learning. The lovely thing is that both people end up learning.

Copyright © 2013 by The Lindenberger Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

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