How to Be a Great Career Mentor in the Workplace

Experienced businesswoman in a mentoring conversation with younger businesswoman

The first article in this series, "A Guide to Understanding the Role of a Mentor," described the nature and scope of the role and offered ideas for how a mentor might help you in your career. This article is intended for anyone interested in serving as a mentor. 

Importance of the Mentor Role

An effective mentor is a potential difference-maker in the careers of the individuals he/she serves. Many accomplished professionals point to someone who invested time, energy, and support in helping them navigate a formative point in their lives.

In my own case, I point to two remarkable professionals who invested time in working with me to help me develop as a leader in the corporate world and as a management educator in the academic world. In hindsight, I view those relationships as "forks in the road" on my life's journey, where the support of these mentors allowed me to venture down a new path that would have been otherwise closed to me. 

Why Serve as a Mentor

For those who have benefited from a helpful mentor in their lives or careers, there is often a strong drive to pay it forward to others by serving in the same role. The act of helping someone develop, grow, and navigate life and career obstacles is incredibly rewarding. Those who provide this support as a mentor are involved in a selfless act of kindness, with no expectation of return or remuneration.

In addition to the knowledge that you gave of yourself in support of another person, learning to serve as a mentor is a personal and professional development experience that challenges you to reflect on your own actions and behaviors over time. One longtime mentor suggested, “In striving to help younger and less experienced individuals, I had to reflect upon and learn from my own mistakes and shortcomings.”

Recognize That There Is a Variety of Ways to Get Started as a Mentor

Mentors take on many shapes and forms in our lives. From a teacher who pushes us harder to excel in a subject to a coach who helps us recognize the dedication and hard work it takes to succeed, these individuals were mentors in fact, just not in the title. You can serve as a mentor from many vantage points in your life and for many audiences.

Accept That the Role of Mentor Has Changed 

The mentor role is charged with helping people think through the larger decisions and directions in their careers. A mentor might offer a rising star guidance on developing as a strategist and expanding her leadership abilities. A coach would look for specific behavioral issues to help you strengthen or develop; a mentor helps you with compass directions for your career map.

Take Stock of Your Own Journey, Including Your Mistakes Over Time

The act of reflecting upon both the positives and the negatives supports your own growth and maturation and prepares you to engage with someone who will make their own mistakes as well as create their own victories.

Refine Your View of What Success Looks Like as a Mentor

Your scorecard has little to do with the near-term progress of your mentee and everything to do with the downstream impact your involvement and guidance offers to the individual. In many cases, you will never know the true impact of your support. Remember, the relationship is not about you. 

Many Relationships Start Accidentally or “Organically” 

I have taken on mentees through observing and interacting with individuals outside of my management purview. In one instance, I offered a compliment to a bright young professional after a presentation and this led to a series of conversations that ultimately turned into an informal but long-lasting relationship that has transcended multiple companies and industry changes for both of us.

If Your Firm or Organization Has a Formal Mentoring Program, Enroll! 

Some organizations have a very mature process for on-boarding new mentors and will work to align them with interested mentees. Take advantage of any and all resources available to support this effort.

Look Beyond Your Own Firm

Consider looking to outside organizations, including not-for-profits, religious institutions, and other youth organizations. For many of these, you should reasonably expect to undergo a thorough background check before being accepted as a mentor.

Set Proper Expectations

Start by describing your role and accountability for the relationship and discuss the same for the mentee. Ensure that the individual understands the difference between mentoring and coaching.

Invest Time in Getting to Know Each Other

Ask your mentee questions about his or her background, education and long-term hopes and dreams. Share a bit about your own story; however, do not get caught up in a long narrative about your career. This relationship is about the mentee, and your focus should be on striving to understand aspirations. A core part of your role is helping the individual establish the map from current state to desired future or aspirational state.

Maintain Regular, but Not Too Frequent Contact

Remember, you are not a daily adviser for every little headache or problem your mentee encounters. Your focus is on the larger picture and longer term. Once the relationship has started and after the first few conversations, I have found that monthly contact provides a reasonable balance of frequency and currency.

During your conversations, use more general and open-ended questions to steer the dialog. As examples, consider:

  • “How are you doing?”
  • “What do you want to talk about?”
  • “What have you learned the hard way recently?”
  • “How will you do this better in the future?”
  • “What have you done in the past month to learn or grow?”
  • “What do you want to achieve in the upcoming period?”

The open-ended questions encourage your mentee to think about and articulate perspectives on important topics, and they offer you additional context for further questions and suggestions.

Resist the Urge to Give Specific Instructions

 If necessary, use the world’s simplest coaching question: “What do you think you should do?” Challenge your mentee to think through issues and develop their ideas. In most circumstances, you should allow the individual to go forth and implement their own idea and ask them to share results and lessons learned at a later date.

The Bottom Line

Serving as a mentor is both rewarding and supportive of your own development as a person and a professional. Be careful to not overload yourself with too many relationships: one or two may be all you can handle while maintaining your own workload. Patience and wisdom are two virtues of the best mentors. Remember this as you embark upon this important endeavor in support of others.