In this three-part series, learn how to build a strong mentorship network by understanding where you fit on the mentorship spectrum, how to maximize your mentorship experience, and how to be a mentor to others.
I think being a mentor is much harder than being a mentee. Here’s why:
- First, you have to believe that you have experience and insight worth sharing.
- Then you need to understand the role that your mentee is looking for you to fill.
- Then you need to go against your instincts to try and fix everything.
- Shut up and listen.
- Then ask a million questions without giving in to the urge to tell them what to do.
I would argue that, more than anything, a good mentor is one who is able to put aside their own opinions and voice to listen and guide. Advice and opinions are of course valuable, and often requested, but not the only or best way to help.
Also, it sounds cliche, but I also learn so much from the people who have given me the privilege of being their mentor in some form. They make me think of things in new ways, they challenge my skills and force me to approach problems in unique ways, and they help me appreciate the curveballs that life has thrown me and the silver linings that go with them.
I often have moments when I am in a mentorship role where I realize I need to listen to my own flashes of wisdom. Occasionally the adage “Do as I say, not as I do”, pops into my head and I reevaluate my own approaches. The reward of mentoring is both helping someone learn while growing and learning yourself.
Finding your inner mentor
Though this is probably not a problem for everyone, I have struggled to add “mentor” to the vocabulary of words to describe myself. It makes my impostor syndrome scream in protest. The word mentor conjures images of Yoda, Gandalf, and Professor Dumbledore and all manner of old wise people who know an awful lot more than me. (Side note…it is not lost on me the lack of adequate female representation among our pop culture elders.)
This comes back to recognizing that anyone can be a mentor, regardless of demographics. I still end up kind of surprised that anyone would be interested in my mentorship since I perpetually feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants. Then I remember that I have been running a business for seven years and I am 32 years old so I have to have learned SOMETHING worth sharing. Maybe even a few somethings.
While it is easy to say, and harder to internalize, I am a mentor. You are a mentor. We all need to work on being the best mentors we can be.
What does your mentee actually need from you?
The greatest challenge of being a mentor is not jumping immediately to solutions. Sometimes that is appropriate, but most often it is not really your role as a mentor to tell your mentee what to do. Rather, it is to help them figure it out on their own. I think it is ok to share your opinions, but your mentee will grow and learn the most by coming to a decision or realization on their own so try to be cautious about how you share.
I think this is one of the things I still need to work really hard on in the relationships I have where I step into a mentor role. I am a natural fixer. It is my immediate instinct to take over a problem as my own and figure it out, but it is not my responsibility to figure it out. In my previous post, Building a Mentorship Network: Part 2 – Maximizing Mentorship, I describe a few roles such as a coach, connector, cheerleader, and challenger. In these roles, you are not telling or doing, but guiding.
Here is an example situation where a mentee might need a number of different mentorship approaches, depending on how you read the situation.
Your mentee, Casey, comes to you and tells you that she has been offered a job at a new company. She feels loyal to her current employer and likes her current job, but thinks the new job might also be a good opportunity. She doesn’t know what to do so she comes to you for mentorship.
1. Coach – If you thought that coaching her through this decision was the best approach, you might suggest that Casey makes a pros and cons list for each job. You might ask her to think about her values and how each job fits within those values. You might ask her to think of the best and worse case scenarios for each job and what that would mean for her. As a coach, you are helping her walk through the options in a way that will help make it feel like a less overwhelming decision, but at the end of the day, she has to make it.
2. Connector – If you thought being a connector was the right approach, you might consider someone in your network that is in a similar role and make an introduction so that Casey can speak to someone with more experience in that role and add some additional context to help her make an educated decision. As a connector, you have identified that you might not have the best experience to share in this situation, but you know someone who does, so that is the best way to help.
3. Cheerleader – If you thought that Casey needed a cheerleader, you might talk her through the reasons she wasn’t sure about which job to choose. Is it fear of the unknown, impostor syndrome, concern that she isn’t qualified enough, etc. Casey might already know what she wants to do, but need someone to remind her how awesome she is to give her the confidence to make the decision. As a cheerleader, you are combatting the voice that we all have that makes us doubt our skills and giving Casey the emotional boost to make the decision based on facts, not fear or doubt.
4. Challenger – If you thought that Casey needed a challenger, you might comment on how she has said many times that she is ready for a new opportunity since she doesn’t think there will be an opportunity to advance, how she isn’t happy with her salary at her current job, or how she has only been in her current role for a few months and should consider the ramifications of jumping to a new role. Whatever the case, the challenger calls Casey on her BS. All of us set up artificial barriers to our own success. As a challenger, you are questioning those barriers and pushing Casey to look past them.
There is no hard and fast rule about how to mentor someone, but I think that as a mentor you need to try your best to truly consider what your mentee needs, not what you want to do. You might provide any combination of the above roles, or something else, but it is about them, not you. If you are really unsure which approach to take, ask your mentee. They might even know the type of mentorship they need from you.
Listen more than you speak and ask lots of questions
I think most people think they are better listeners than they actually are. How many times have you waited for someone to finish their point because you are bursting to say something instead of really listening to what is being said? I know I have done it and still do. I think developing your listening skills is one of the most powerful things you can do as a mentor and a lot harder than you think.
The following are some tactics that might help you to bite your tongue and get as much context on the situation as possible:
1. Make small notes while you are listening to someone so you can bring up your points later, but not interrupt. This will not always be appropriate but can help relieve the internal pressure to blurt out what you think on the fly.
2. Turn the situation back on your mentee. It has been my experience that a mentee might seek mentorship out of a lack of confidence, not knowledge. Sometimes your greatest contribution is validation so if your mentee asks you what they should do, ask them what THEY think they should do first. They often already know but are afraid to say so.
3. Ask for details. Have your mentee work through the problem verbally. Get them to share the various paths that brought them to you. If they haven’t thought the options through, they need to do that before asking you what to do. Talking through the issue can be very powerful.
4. Ask why. And then ask why again. And probably again. This is an approach that my mentors take with us all the time and one that, while sometimes exasperating, forces us to evaluate the motivations behind the decisions we are making. It makes us take a step back and really understand the goal we are trying to reach and how our proposed solution gets us there.
5. Ask questions to see if they have considered certain angles/approaches/ideas, instead of telling. Keep them talking.
After all of that…share your experience for them to consider. Tell them what you think if they want to know but try really hard to encourage them to take your opinion as a small part of a whole and not a major influencer on their decision.
Being asked to be a mentor is a gift. One that I think is probably one of the greatest honours a person can give you. It is a sign of respect and trust and something that you should give very serious thought and effort to. We are all, at some point, mentors to our friends, siblings, classmates, colleagues, children, and more. Giving mentorship is challenging but is also a skill that you can cultivate so that you can build up the people in your life that come to you. The reward? Helping someone grow and in turn growing yourself.
Being a mentor can be incredibly rewarding. It is validating to know that you contributed in some way to another person’s growth or helped guide them toward a goal. It is also REALLY hard. Sometimes we are so eager to help that we don’t take a step back to figure out what our mentee actually needs, versus what we want to say or share. One of the things we can all work on for the people we mentor is being more intentional about how we approach mentorship and recognizing that we can be many things to many people, we just have to take the time to figure out what.
We could all probably practice listening more than we speak and asking more questions. It is instinctual to want to talk about yourself and how someone’s situation relates to you. True skill is to be able to hold a person up, rather than pull them forward. And the reward, a cycle of growth, learning, and knowledge for both mentor and mentee.