As your career progresses, you’ll discover an increasing number of opportunities for mentoring others, and being an effective mentor will become increasingly important.
This blog post covers 5 things that you need to consider before becoming a mentor, along with some tips on how to select a mentee, and some pitfalls to watch out for.
Two types of mentoring relationships
At a high level, there are two types of mentoring relationships; incidental and intentional.
- Incidental mentors are ones that stumble into the role without forethought or deliberate consideration
- Intentional mentors deliberately select mentees, and carefully manage the development and course of the mentoring relationship
This post is all about becoming an intentional mentor.
1. Consider why you want to mentor somebody
Before you decide to mentor somebody, ask yourself why you want to be a mentor, and make sure you are doing it for the right reasons.
Are you planning on mentoring somebody:
- In order to advance your own career?
- To have something good to put on your performance review?
- Because you feel like you should (but don’t really want to)?
- Because you like a feeling of power or control over others?
If any of the above ring true, then watch out… you may not be in the right frame of mind to be a mentor… but don’t worry! It could just mean that and now may not be the best time for you, and that you should put the idea of mentoring on hold for now, and re-consider in future.
Some great reasons to become a mentor are:
- Because you are comfortable and accomplished in your own career, and intrinsically want to help others develop in order to also become comfortable and accomplished.
- Because you already have a good professional relationship with a potential mentee, and see a lot of potential, and ways that you can help them develop.
Before committing to becoming a mentor, increase your awareness of why you want to become a mentor, and make sure it is for the right reasons.
- Honestly consider your motivation for mentoring, and only become a mentor if you’re doing it for the right reasons
2. Consider the consequences of being a mentor
There are real, tangible benefits for being a mentor, not just for you, but for the mentee, and the organisation as a whole.
However, mentoring isn’t a responsibility that should be taken lightly. While there are many benefits to being a mentor, there are also many risks.
There are many tangible benefits for mentors such as:
- Reduced workload
- Technical assistance
- Development of a loyal support base
- Professional recognition for developing in-house talent
- Financial rewards
- Enhancement of one’s own network
Many of these benefits are not primary motivations for mentors, but are welcome side effects. Many mentors also enjoy intrinsic benefits of mentoring such as:
- Internal satisfaction from helping people grow
- Excitement in working with a talented, energetic junior
- The satisfaction that comes from helping somebody succeed
Now for the risks. One of the most insidious costs is the opportunity cost due to expenditure of time and energy. Other risks are much more visible such as:
- A high visibility mentee failure
- Sabotage or undermining by unscrupulous or disloyal mentees
- Subtle innuendo or overt animosity from colleagues who feel threatened or jealous of the mentoring relationship, or any benefits that the mentee is receiving
- Losing perspective and becoming an institutional bully - all in the name of protecting the mentee
Mentors need to appreciate the benefits and risks inherent in mentoring.
- Be aware of, and accept the fact that mentoring has both extrinsic and intrinsic benefits
- Be aware of, and accept the fact that mentoring has potential for failure and organisational scrutiny
3. Make sure that you are competent
Incompetence guarantees the lack of success as a mentor - to be successful, mentors need two types of competence:
- Professional competence
- Mentoring competence
Some people who try their hand at mentoring lack the technical or interpersonal capabilities required for success.
Unlike other fields such as law and medicine which prohibit professionals practicing outside their area of competence or expertise, prospective mentors must engage in some self-analysis regarding their competence, or preparedness to effectively help another in a long-term developmental relationship.
Mentors who are unsure of their own professional competence are likely to be poorer mentors. To be competent as a mentor, you must be experienced in the job at hand, confident and successful in your own right, and be capable of safely and benignly managing relationships with mentees who remain largely vulnerable to your influence as a mentor, throughout the course of the mentorship.
To be an effective mentor, you must have good listening skills, be kind, and ideally have a sense of humor. Without interpersonal expertise, even the most technically competent mentor will find it difficult to effectively deliver career guidance.
Real mentoring competence is made up of many mentoring techniques, and a knack or sense for knowing when to apply them to specific contexts for maximum benefit.
- Work on developing your technical and interpersonal skills
- Evaluate your own experience, expertise, and confidence level before becoming a mentor
4. Make sure that you have the capacity to be a mentor
Consider the quote that you see in airline safety videos:
Before you assist others, always put your oxygen mask on first.
Before you take care of others, you must first take care of yourself first to ensure you have the capacity to mentor.
There is a limit to how many people that you can successfully mentor, and you cannot mentor everyone; no matter how energetic, idealistic, and gifted you are, taking on too many mentees is a sure way to compromise your own health, and quality of the work that you do outside of mentoring.
By taking on too many mentees, you’ll also dilute your effectiveness as a mentor, and also diminish your enjoyment as a mentor, which is perhaps one of mentoring’s greatest benefits.
By being well-intentioned but over-extended as a mentor, you’ll pay a price, running the risk of becoming exhausted, detached, emotionally muted, or even cynical toward your mentees.
Excellent mentors acknowledge the costs of mentoring, and know when to say no, gracefully declining to accept new mentoring relationships, especially with those that are poorly matched. By doing so, they ensure that they are behaving in a sustainable way, and protecting their current mentees from poor mentoring.
Competent mentors are recognised as such, they are often sought out for their services - unless you set limits, you can easily become overwhelmed and set yourself up for negative outcomes.
What about the psychology of mentors that can’t say no, taking on poorly matched, or too many mentees? The obvious consequences are failing to set limits, lack of self care, and ultimately burnout. They’re perpetually over-extended, hurried, and pressured… but the causes are less apparent than the consequences.
If you fail to set limits because of poor assertiveness skills, fear of rejection, an unhealthy need for approval, an unhealthy need to feel needed, or even a failure to recognise the professional requirements and emotional demands of good mentorship, the result will be a poor outcome for you, your mentee, and even the organisation as a whole.
- Decide in advance the maximum number of mentees that you have capacity to mentor (this could just be one, or two, or even zero)
- Remain aware and vigilant to potential symptoms of mentor burnout
5. Select your mentee carefully
To be a successful mentor, it’s important to be vigilant and discerning of the traits, talents, and interests of your potential mentee. Some mentees will be better matched to you than others, and finding a mentee that matches you well will pay dividends for both you and your mentee.
Careful selection of mentees will enable the best return for both you and your mentee.
To increase the chance of your mentorship being successful, spend time getting to know your potential mentees, and try to figure out if you compatible; being well matched on professional dimensions, along with personal dimensions will ensure stronger, more effective, and enduring mentorships.
That being said, what if there are individuals in your organisation are seeking a mentor, but no good match exists? Excellent mentors will balance self-awareness and honesty regarding matching preferences, with a willingness to ensure fairness and equal access in their selection of mentees.
- Before committing to a mentorship, identify the personal qualities, interests, and aspirations of mentees, to ensure that they are a good match
- Commit to a mentorship only after some period of informal work and interaction with a potential mentee
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