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spike bullet October 1999 - Mentoring

Mentoring is a Leadership Trait
What is a Mentor?
How Does Mentoring Work?
What Does a Mentor Do?
How to Locate a Mentor
How to be a Good Mentor
How to be a Good Protégé
Case Studies
Resources (Books, Internet Resources and Articles)

Mentoring is a Leadership Trait

Many successful business people have had mentors during their early career years.  Because they realize the benefits of the rich experience of learning from someone older and wiser, these leaders choose to become mentors themselves as a way of "giving back." 

Teaching someone else what you know is challenging at times and enhances the leadership experience for the mentor.  In order to teach someone else, the mentor must stretch themselves to understand their protégé's experience and viewpoint.  Through interaction with different protégés, the mentor widens their own perspective to include a variety of different viewpoints, further enhancing their leadership skills and making themselves a better mentor over time.

What is a Mentor?

A mentor is someone who is willing to share their experience with someone younger or less experienced.  A mentor is considered a coach or teacher - encouraging their protégé to be all they can be, teaching the protégé and helping the protégé strengthen their experience.

We use the word "mentor" to describe the older or more experienced person and the words "protégé" or "student" to describe the younger or less experienced person.

There are no strict formal rules about when two people feel they can benefit from a mentoring relationship.  The mentor/protégé relationship can cross gender, race, ethnic, social, economic and cultural boundaries.  Occasionally, groups or organizations offer formal mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers or Big Sisters.  A mentor may work with a group of protégés rather than one-on-one.  

In this article, we are addressing business or professional mentoring for career purposes, rather than adult/youth mentoring. 

Mentor relationships range from formal arrangements where meetings may be scheduled and the relationship lasts for many years, to informal arrangements where the mentor is available as needed.   The mentor relationship can be in-person face-to-face, by phone, via the Internet or through e-mail.   Some mentoring relationships are of short duration or limited scope.  For example, a mentor may work with a protégé on a single particular issue.

The important thing to remember about mentoring is that is a commitment by both parties to participate as long as they both feel comfortable or until the need is satisfied.

How Does Mentoring Work?

Turf and Other Corporate Power Plays, by Pamela Cuming, is an excellent book that describes a mentoring relationship.  This is a fictional story about a dedicated mentor and his protégé (Larry).  The book follows Larry's career from MBA graduate to CEO, giving excellent examples of how his mentor teaches him about corporate power and politics at work. 

Many professional organizations and corporations are starting formal mentoring programs.  Each program is different and uniquely structured for the particular needs of the group. 

What Does a Mentor Do?

In most cases, the mentor offers the benefit of their experience in dealing with their students, for issues such as career direction, political entanglements, educational opportunities, communications, conflict resolution or as a sounding board for ideas.  The mentor may be actively involved in the student's life/career or may be only available by phone or appointment as a need arises. 

Ideally, the form and structure of the mentoring relationship should be established clearly between the two parties so that each understands the time and energy commitment.  In practice, however, many mentor/protégé relationships simply evolve over time.  Others are in place for only a short period of time to deal with a specific issue. 

How to Locate a Mentor

Mentors may seek out protégés or the mentoring relationship may simply develop naturally as two people find they enjoy helping each other.  A protégé may ask someone specifically to be a mentor or they may simply turn to a certain person for assistance, support or advice.

If you are someone who feels the need for a mentor or could benefit from the support and knowledge of someone more experienced, start looking for someone in your company or your professional network who might be willing to work with you.  You can ask the person directly to be a mentor or you can seek their advice in a particular situation first, then ask as the relationship develops.  

You might say to a potential mentor, "Since you have more experience than I do, could I get your perspective or advice about a situation that I am involved in?"  If the potential mentor is willing, meet with them, discuss the situation and listen to their suggestions.  If you feel comfortable with them, you might ask if you could seek out their advice in the future.   If they agree, you are on your way to a potential mentor relationship.

Some potential mentors may say no if you ask them to be your mentor without any history of working with you.  The best advice we can offer is to go slowly until you both feel comfortable with each other. 

If you belong to a professional organization, alumni association or business group, you may find a mentor directly or through a referral from someone in the group. 

If you don't find one through those means, ask your friends to help you locate one.  You might try the Internet sites for other suggestions.

The authors occasionally help people who write to us, even though we do not encourage that type of relationship. 

How to be a Good Mentor

If you are already serving as a mentor, you may already know what it takes to be a good mentor.  For those who are not sure whether this is something they would like to do or not, we suggest the following tips:

  1. If you are someone who likes teaching others and find that you often have people coming to you for advice, you are already in the mentor role.
  2. When someone seeks your counsel, be honest about the amount of time and energy that you can commit to working with them.  If it can only be occasional contact, let the student know that. 
  3. If you encounter someone who seems to need the assistance of someone with more experience, you might suggest that you would be willing to work with them in some capacity.
  4. Keep all communications with student in confidence by both parties, unless you both agree otherwise. 
  5. A mentor relationship can create potential conflicts of interest at times.  Be honest with yourself and your student when such situations arise and resolve the conflict. 
  6. Treat your protégé with respect at all times.
  7. Do not abuse the position you hold in their life by taking advantage of them in any way.
  8. A deep measure of trust develops between a mentor and student over a long period of time.  If that trust is broken or betrayed, it can be devastating to the person who feels betrayed.  Each person should be aware of the responsibility they hold to always treat the other person fairly, with respect and dignity.
  9. Don't expect or demand that your protégé take your advice word-for-word.  Allow them to make their own decisions within their own timeframe.
  10. Be smart enough to know when the relationship should end or when the student needs to seek other advice or support.

How to be a Good Protégé

Some tips for maintaining a good relationship with your mentor:

  1. Respect the mentor's time and energy.  
  2. Allow the relationship to develop as it needs to without demanding more time or attention than you need from your mentor. 
  3. Don't expect your mentor to solve all your problems for you.  Their job is to help you become stronger in your own right.
  4. Do allow them to give their perspective, then make your own decisions about the right course for you.
  5. Don't brag to your friends about your relationship or disclose what is discussed between you and your mentor, unless you have the mentor's explicit permission.
  6. Keep your mentor up-to-date on your progress and decisions so they can better assist you.
  7. If you don't feel the mentor is right for you or your needs have changed, let the mentor know.  End the relationship or ask for a change in how you interact with your mentor.
  8. If your mentor is very helpful to you, let them know.
  9. If the mentor has not given you what you need, let them know that too so that you can adjust your relationship to maximize the benefits to both of you.
  10. When you are little older or more experienced, give your time and energy to mentor others. This is the concept of "giving back" for what you received and is your payment for the value you have received from your mentor.

Benefits of a Mentoring Relationship

The protégé gains the benefit of experience from someone older or more experienced.  They gain another perspective and may benefit from contacts or other resources offered by the mentor.

The mentor gains from learning how their viewpoint can help someone else and develops a feeling of pride as the protégé develops and grows through the relationship.  In some relationships, the mentor can pass on their knowledge and accomplishments to another person who will continue to develop and enhance their work.  Socrates and his student, Plato, are an example of such a relationship.

In very close long-term relationships, both the mentor and the protégé gain the benefits of friendship, respect, mutual support, communication, comradery and a feeling of accomplishment.

Case Studies

To add a personal perspective to the issue of mentoring, we would like to share a few of our own experiences.

  1. I worked for a man (Rob R.) for 8 years who I feel was a master at corporate politics and understanding people.  Over the course of those 8 years, we had many, many discussions about many different things.  My admiration and respect for him grew with each year and most of us who worked for him wondered how had developed those talents.
    Many years later, when my own employees started making comments like, "How did you get to be so wise?" I realized just how much I had learned from him.  Long after we had lost touch, I realized that much of my management style is similar to what his was so many years ago. Through a series of synchronistic coincidences, we learned he died suddenly from a heart attack in his 50's during this time. It was as if he reached us from beyond to let us know that he was still supporting our progress.
  2. Another boss (Tom G.) decided that we (a co-worker and I) should learn public speaking.  His goal was to have us make a presentation at a national conference for which we had a year to prepare.  Our first reaction was total and complete panic - I suspect some people reading this can appreciate the feeling.  Tom was working on his doctoral program and we always suspected that he used us for his study subjects, even though he never admitted it.  In many ways, Tom was a bit quirky as a boss and we never felt particularly close to him.  However, he gave us a great gift by teaching us how to speak in public over the course of a full year.  By the time we got to the national conference, we were confident speakers and had a great time.  
  3. Two other bosses (Lee S. and Harry H.) helped us learn even more about corporate politics and communications by constantly quizzing us about what happened at meetings, how events unfolded, people's personalities and motivation, and other situations that develop in the course of business.  They would give us feedback on things we had missed or overlooked.  Over several years, such constant training and feedback helped further develop our skills.

Over the years, we have had many people who guided us and helped us develop - from school teachers to bosses to other managers who were willing to share their experiences with us.  The four people mentioned provide only a small glimpse of the kind of mentoring we received. 

Some of the situations in which we have served as a mentor:

  1. A young woman that worked for me seemed to have good ideas but lacked confidence.  One day, she was very frustrated with people not filling out her forms properly.  When I suggested that she could redesign the forms, she hardly believed it.  Through coaching, I showed her how to get started, encouraged her to work with the "problem" people to get their ideas, helped her meet with the print shop and gave her many suggestions along the way.   When she was finished with this project, she had greatly increased confidence and a feeling of self-empowerment. 
    Within 8 months, she had moved from the lowest paid employee to supervisor of a group within our department.  As her confidence increased, so did her productivity and her physical appearance greatly improved.  Others in the department noticed the change and they improved themselves as well. 
    Through additional coaching with several people individually, within a very short time, we went from a group of timid, frustrated people who felt the world was dumping on them to a group of highly-motivated, highly productive people  We even created charts showing their increased  production over time and posted thank you letters from internal clients on the wall as external validation of the progress they made. 
  2. A young woman from another department in our company came to us for advice about her career.  Over a few months, we met occasionally to review her progress.  Because of the culture of the company, she chose to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.  She said that no one had ever given her any career guidance before and she was most appreciative of the small amount of time that we gave her.  She went from someone who felt trapped by a bad situation to someone who had the confidence to seek a job that better fit her talents and career goals.
  3. We have helped several young men through the Internet.  One had stayed in Europe after leaving the service and decided it was time to return to the US.  We talked on the phone several times, exchanged e-mail and provided suggestions or referrals to companies in the US that might be right for his talents and interests.  Eventually, he moved back to the US to a job that seems ideal for him.   Another young man contacted us about his plans to transition to the private sector from the military.  We gave him the same suggestions we had given the first man and eventually introduced them to each other so they could share their experiences.

There are many times that people contact us and we simply do not have the time, energy or resources to help them.  Those that we do choose to work with usually come through personal referrals. We feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the many, many people who have helped us throughout our life and try to share our experience through articles in this website as well as through our in-person relationships.

Books   -  Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • Turf and Other Corporate Power Plays, Pamela Cuming (a fictional story about Larry's career progression from MBA graduate to CEO over 20 years; gives excellent examples of corporate power and politics at work.  This is an excellent book, now out of print but available in libraries or used). Simon & Schuster; (January 1986) ASIN: 0139331026
  • Coaching, Counseling & Mentoring: How to Choose & Use the Right Technique to Boost Employee Performance by Florence Stone.  AMACOM; (January 1999) ISBN: 0814404162
  • Creating Women's Networks: A How-To Guide for Women and Companies by Shelia Wellington. Jossey-Bass; (December 1998) ISBN: 0787940143
  • See for Mentoring books and comments by readers

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