How to Be a Mentor: Start with Not Making These Common Mistakes
Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Andy Grove and Steve Jobs. Professor Eric Roberts and Marissa Mayer. Dumbledore and Harry Potter.
Throughout business (and literature) mentor/protégé relationships have highlighted the benefits of sage counsel - and inspired leaders to admit what they don't know and seek advice from those who do. But not every pairing is the stuff of legends. Mistakes, regardless of intentionality, can be deleterious to mentees and their careers. When learning how to be a mentor, perhaps the first lesson should be: first, do no harm.
How (Not) to Be a Mentor
Professor Faye J. Crosby of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who researches the subject extensively, says mentoring is analogous to investing: "Done well, it can make you rich; done poorly, you can lose a lot." When your missteps can impact another person so profoundly, it is every bit as instructive to learn what not to do as it is to learn what to do.
In their article, "The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice," authors David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis, tackle this subject. They warn mentors to be cautious about the following tendencies: Overstepping Boundaries.
Advice is a gift that everyone loves to give - but no one likes to receive. Like fruitcake. Here's the reality: unsolicited advice is rarely followed. It's even worse when you voice your opinions or suggestions in areas in which you're not qualified to give them.
Sheryl Sandberg is a prime example. In a keynote address, COO of Facebook, commented that, while she had various mentors throughout her career, she was careful not to take all their advice. She had been counselled, for instance, not to take positions with Google and with Facebook, roles that propelled her to remarkable success.
As a mentor, you don't want to overstep boundaries by giving advice that is not only unsolicited but wrong-headed.
Mis-Diagnosing the Problem
The most powerful tool you have as a mentor is questions. To help a mentee, you have to investigate: what's the problem/situation/challenge? Is the mentee providing all the information you need? Is it biased? (Likely so: we're all guilty of being partial to ourselves!)
You don't know unless you question. Often relentlessly! Often when you feel like you should already know the answers. Garvin and Margolis write that mentors often have an "irrational but compelling fear of looking incompetent" that prevents them from asking questions.
Conquer that fear. Asking questions won't make you look incompetent. Giving advice based on partial information or assumptions will.
Giving Self-Centered Guidance
"Well, if I were you..." If I were you, I'd drop those words from my mentoring vocabulary!
As Glenn Llopis writes in Forbes: "Many mentors mismanage the mentee relationship as they focus their time and attention on helping their mentee become more like them rather than strengthening their mentee's potential."
This can be unintentional: after all, advice grounded in our own experience can be value. If. If we then ground it in the mentee's reality. This is about your mentee: her feelings, perceptions, situation, and experience.
When you offer self-centered - all about me! - counsel, it undermines your credibility. And, further, it might not even be doable for your mentee. The manner in which you'd approach the situation may not be possible given his or her position, authority, or skill set. Forget about what you would do; help your mentee figure out what she can do.
Doing a Bad Job Communicating Advice
Let's say you have asked questions; you've left yourself out of the equation; you're 100% focused on your mentee. And you have some great suggestions. What could possibly go wrong? Well, you can get in your own way - and, ultimately, that of your mentee - by poorly communicating your advice.
Are you too vague? Your advice should be targeted and explicit. "Improve leadership skills"? Sure, it's advice - but what the heck does it mean? What should your mentee do? Or are you providing too much input too quickly. If you have an action list with a thousand items, your mentee will - understandably - become overwhelmed.
Be specific; narrow down your suggestions and provide explicit guidance. Otherwise, none of those 1000 action items stands a chance of actually seeing any action.
Mishandling the Aftermath
A mentee who follows all of your advice and completes plans in the manner you prescribe is not a mentee at all. It's an automaton who has no business becoming a leader. Of course she's going to filter your advice; she's going to change it, solicit feedback from others, integrate with her own ideas. Or just flat-out ignore it.
That's her prerogative. Yours is to decide if you're adding value to her: did your advice clarify her direction or assist her in taking action, even if they didn't take it? Some mentors disengage at this point: they stop the conversation. This can leave the mentee adrift - and cause a rift in the relationship. If you - and your mentee - find that you are adding value, keep the conversation going.
It can be difficult to figure out how to be a mentor - how to give of your experience and expertise without committing these faux-pas (which to be honest, are pretty easy to make if you're not careful). But when you keep in mind what not to do, it works to strengthen and hone your skills in what to do to help your mentees grow and develop into their own leaders. First, do no harm. Second, do a whole lot of good.