By John Neal, Director of the Sports Business programme at Ashridge Business School
Mentoring can play a key role in helping employees build knowledge, develop new skills and realise their full potential. Good mentoring relationships can create a space where people can reflect on their personal growth, talk openly about issues they may be facing and find new solutions to work-related challenges.
Of course it’s not a one-way street. Managers who act as mentors can also gain enormously from the process, honing their skill in developing others and gaining new perspectives.
So what are the qualities and skills of a great mentor?
Here are my top ten tips on what it takes to be a successful mentor:
1. Build self-awareness
An effective mentor should understand themselves and their character when under pressure. This means they are more likely to be focused on the mentee’s agenda without allowing their own issues to cloud the dialogue. Spend time getting to know yourself before you start mentoring. Look into the darker side of your character. Examine the biases that could cloud your judgement, something which often happens when working under pressure.
2. Be Curious
A constant desire to understand more, to be passionate about the process and not the solution, will lead to inquiry without judgement. This gives the mentee the space to discover their own solutions, rather than to follow your advice. Of course, your advice as the mentor may not only be wrong but possibly out of date and, most importantly, your solution will not be owned by the mentee.
3. Create new futures
Mentoring is about prompting actions to create new futures. The past may inform and explain where the mentee has come from and why they are where they are. The mentor needs the ability to help the mentee to look forward and create a future they desire and that inspires them. A robust plan needs to be developed, based on their current situation. Beware of mission statements and goal setting. These do not motivate anybody, despite what you may hear from motivation and life coaches. A great mentor will help the individual discover what is achievable.
4. Learn to Trust yourself
Trust is vital. Without trust between mentor and mentee little progress can be made. And trust starts with the mentor. Do you as the mentor trust yourself? Most people have a quiet but dangerous voice inside their heads that offers a running commentary as they go through life. Who are you to shine, to be so good? If we do not deal with this voice and do not trust ourselves then why should anybody else? Use this simple trust formula: Trust = Competence x Character x Commitment x Intent – minus Personal Interests.
5. Offer rapport – not empathy
Rapport is taking the trouble to understand the mentee’s outlook on the world – how they see things and why – without judging them. Empathy is where you show that you agree with their viewpoint. This mustn’t get in the way, especially if you do not share the other person’s perspective.
6. Question for understanding and not power
Questions should be used appropriately to develop understanding and clarity for the mentee. When you ask a good question the mentee will stop, pause and think. What could be better for a mentor than to cause another person to search inwardly for answers to their own question? It can challenge the mentee to see things in a different way and to come to their own robust conclusion. Only when mentees form their own solution are they likely to take action and make changes.
7. Be a good listener
Listen not just to the words, but also to how the words are used and the accompanying body language. You need to seek out what is being said, as well as understanding where the emotional energy lies, and to really hear the mentee. Make sure that they feel they are being fully understood. Good listening is exhausting and requires that you let go of your own views and agenda. Try it tonight when you get home. See how long you can listen before expressing an opinion.
8. Feedback leads to the route ahead
Feedback is the food of champions. Remember that it is only data and is not always fact. With this in mind there is no such thing as good or bad feedback. A mentor should be comfortable about seeking data and passing it on. You need that data so that you can plan the route ahead.
9. Relevant knowledge will gain respect
Being a master of your craft takes time, and needs study, experience and practice. You do not need letters after your name, but you must know your stuff. Having the relevant knowledge will enable you to gain respect from the mentee. Seek to ask the right questions and develop a strong rapport and trust.
Understanding where you have relevant knowledge which might help is incredibly important. Nobody knows everything and we all have our boundaries that we should stay within. A great mentor knows what they know. Constantly stay curious to learn more but also have he humility to recognise what you don’t know …. And then to use questions to move things forward.
10. Have your own personal system of mentoring
This is not the place to start an argument about what mentoring is and how it is different to coaching, leadership, teaching or counselling. The key is that as a mentor you know what you think it is and that you have your own personal system of mentoring.
Using another person’s model or adopting the practices taught on a course is only a framework, which must be adapted to best suit you. Appreciate your background and skills, the environment in which you are working and most importantly the person you are mentoring.