How to Mentor with the Greatest Impact

By Caroline M. Cole

The post “How to Find a Mentor and Foster a Meaningful Relationship” discusses how we might find and work with mentors to achieve professional and personal goals with greater ease. On occasion, however, we may find ourselves mentoring someone else, either formally or informally. This discussion examines ways to make that work rewarding for all participants.How to Be a Mentor

The term mentor has become synonymous with traits of wisdom, solid council, sage advice, guidance, support, and encouragement—traits that were assumed to be part of Homer’s character Mentor, who was asked to serve as Telemachus’ guardian while his father, Odysseus, was away at war. Ironically, as Andy Roberts from the University College Birmingham argues in “Homer’s Mentor: Duties Fulfilled or Misconstrued,” Mentor himself failed to live up to the characteristics he’s now credited with having bestowed upon or otherwise used to guide the young Telemachus. In fact, Roberts points out, if anyone in Homer’s work deserves credit for these characteristics, it is Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who adopts the form of Mentor so as to counsel, guide, and assist Telemachus in finding Odysseus and bringing him back to Ithaca. Yet before we consider mentoring as the sole purview of shape-shifting gods and goddesses, Roberts goes on to identify a more likely, and human, source for our current views of mentorship: François de Salinas de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651–1715), a Roman Catholic priest who eventually became the tutor of Louis XIV’s eldest son and heir to the throne, the Duke of Burgundy.

Believing that kings should rule with wisdom and restraint, Fénelon wrote Les Adventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus, in English), using Mentor and Telemachus’ relationship as a parallel for his own efforts to instruct the young Dauphin in simplicity, temperance, peace, selflessness, and equity. Despite being seen as a scathing commentary on Louis XIV’s autocracy, Les Adventures de Télémaque was a favorite among educators—including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose work Emile both extends the tradition of moralistic tales and adds to our understanding of mentorship by offering a series of stories on how to raise an imaginary pupil to be “an inhabitant of the earth” who is “fit for all human conditions.”

Whether the story involves Greek gods, French royalty, hypothetical children, or individuals simply looking to navigate the challenges of today’s world so as to become noteworthy members of a particular community, mentors can be instrumental. Therefore, when we find ourselves in a position to guide individuals for part of their journey, we should look to incorporate the following actions and characteristics to mentor with the greatest impact:

• Ensure we are the most appropriate guide. Being asked to serve as a mentor is flattering, but given the responsibilities of this relationship, we should verify whether we are—or could be—the most appropriate person to serve in this capacity. Our first task, then, is to understand what the prospective protégé is wanting, making the initial conversations invaluable.

By talking with prospective mentees about their interests, desires, and motivations, as well as any strategies and rationale they may have for achieving their goals, we can learn more about their ambitions, thereby allowing us to identify where and how we might be of assistance, if at all. In some cases, a prospective mentee might come to us with a specific request—such as guidance in learning how to do something—so early conversations might focus on ways we could accommodate those needs. In other cases, mentees may share their goals but have little to no idea of how to achieve them, shifting initial conversations to explorations of whether we could be of service. Whatever the case, if early discussions reveal that we cannot provide the assistance mentees want or need, we should decline their request to serve as a mentor and point them toward others who may be a more suitable match. In doing so, we promote their development even when we may not be active participants in the process.

Let mentees set the agenda. Unless the mentorship is part of a larger enterprise in which the participants have pre-defined goals (for instance, mentorship programs for academic performance or employee development), those being mentored should take the lead in determining when to meet, how, and why. In the early stages of the relationship we might assume a more proactive role, say, by asking our mentees for updates on their work or by passing along information that may be of interest, in order to confirm our interest in and availability to them. But, ultimately, we should encourage mentees to take responsibility for and control of the relationship so they can remain on target for achieving the goals they have in mind.

Guide rather than direct. Ernest Hemmingway observed that “it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Of course we should be helping our mentees move toward the end of their journey but, in doing so, we should be more like a travel agent than a GPS. That is, we should use our mentees’ interests, goals, comments, questions, and concerns to suggest places they might like to visit, rather than offer block-by-block directives for which exit to use or direction to turn. In doing so, we can call attention to interesting stops or noteworthy destinations that might appear along the way, but we should allow our protégés to chart and navigate the course for getting there.

• Listen actively. Stephen R. Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” and the mentors who believe their job is to offer advice are at greatest risk of not listening to their mentees. The irony here, however, is that the only way we could offer advice our mentees could use—if advice is, in fact, what our mentees need—is to fully and accurately understand the situation as they see it.  Certainly we may need to ask questions as they are talking in order to clarify context, but our primary goal should be to understand the questions, concerns, anxieties, values, and so forth as they see them so we can ask better questions, introduce better frameworks, point them toward better resources, and promote better strategies, or so we can know when to be simply a better sounding board.

• Ask questions to encourage discovery. The paths to achieving our goals are seldom singular or linear. We may start down one road only to linger, stray, or completely veer from the route as we explore various sites, get distracted by other things and people along the way, or even discover completely different maps. Recognizing the myriad ways to achieve a goal and knowing that original destinations may change as more information becomes available, we can be of service by continually encouraging mentees to assess their present itinerary and any tentative alterations to their path in light of the goals they have articulated at the onset of their journey. By inviting mentees to work through questions concerning what they’re doing, where things are working, where things are not working, what changes may be necessary, where and how any alternations might be incorporated, what the advantages or disadvantages of those alterations would be, and so on, we can help mentees identify whether their present course is serving their needs, which detours may be worth their time, and which paths might offer a more scenic or a more direct route, as their interests dictate. We likewise model ways our mentees could evaluate the detours and alternate routes that will continue to appear on their journey as their interests evolve.

• Offer constructive feedback, but allow mentees to stay in control. Any feedback we offer our mentees should be framed by the goals they have laid out for themselves; in other words, we must consider if and how the information we think we should offer could help our mentees achieve their objectives with greater proficiency, ease, and success. As importantly, when mentees ask for our opinions, we should share ideas that help them move forward in the ways they want to advance so they can become the best versions of themselves.

Whatever the circumstances behind our offering feedback, however, we must remain indifferent to whether our mentees do anything with our comments. As explained in “The Best Advice You Can Offer,” if we are working from the assumption that our mentees must incorporate our feedback, we are working from a position that privileges our ego, rather than our mentees’ ability to evaluate and respond to information in ways that work best for them. Therefore, we should commit to ensuring that any feedback we offer aims to move our mentees closer to their objectives. In doing so, we may discover that such information is what mentees continue to seek out and value most.

Model practices. “Do as I say, not as I do” may work in some contexts, but this motto has no place in mentorships. In fact, some of the most important work we do as mentors is  through example, primarily in the values we uphold and the practices we adopt. We may not always be able to live up to our own ideals, yet by continually and actively working to maintain the professional and personal views we espouse, we can make the greatest impression upon those looking for guidance in what, how, and why to take up in their own lives.

Advocate for our mentees. One of the greatest resources we can offer those we mentor is our advocacy. Our experiences may provide us with insights that may not be (readily) available to those who have not been through comparable circumstances. Granted, contexts, purposes, participants, and other variables will inevitably alter the ways someone might experience something, but our having been though a similar situation can help us advocate on behalf of someone who presently may not know which questions to ask, which evidence to consider, and which resources to consult. Moreover, our positions, connections, and reputations could help us support someone who may not have access to the forums, resources, and people that could make the greatest difference in their progress.

These actions are the foundation of most successful mentorships, but to make an even greater impact as mentors, we should demonstrate the following characteristics or work from the following dispositions:

Patience, recognizing that our mentees’ growth and development is a process and that some stages inevitably require more time, practice, and guidance than others.

• Humility, resisting the urge to boast about our own accomplishments so as to keep the focus on our mentees and their progress.

• Honesty, sharing our own struggles, disappointments, and even failures to remind our mentees that we all face challenges, albeit at different times or in different ways.

• Curiosity, remaining open to discovery in our pursuits, reinforcing for mentees that learning is an ongoing process, even as we become more masterful.

• Support, providing a safe harbor for mentees to discover options, exchange ideas, recognize errors and, as necessary, rectify mistakes with the confidence that we will continue to see their worth.

Generosity, offering our time, ideas, energy, and resources to help our mentees realize their goals in ways that make the greatest contributions.

• Optimism, believing in the possibilities—even when answers may not be immediately evident—and helping mentees find ways to make things work.

• Respect, viewing mentors as less experienced, though equally competent and capable of making exceptional contributions, even when disagreements arise.

•  Non-competitiveness, setting aside our egos and being able to walking alongside our mentees on their path, allowing them to remain in control of the itinerary.

As significant as these dispositions may be, the greatest disposition a mentor can offer is service. Asking our mentees how we can help them reach their goals and looking for ways to make their journey more enjoyable and successful is the foundation of mentorship. At times our services may involve helping mentees identify which paths to pursue, or how to chart the best course, or ways to read the signs along the route, or how to maneuver around obstacles they encounter, or when to take a detour, or what to do when they find a fork in the road. And in any one of these endeavors, we may find ourselves with them on the road, or we may be on the sidelines cheering them on. We may be vocal or quiet but, throughout, we must remain available, accessible, and ready to help when and as we are able if we are to make the greatest impact.

Studies show the benefits of being a mentor, including greater visibility, more leadership opportunities, broader networks, higher salaries and, depending on the forum, more occasions to identify talent. But perhaps the greatest benefit of being a mentor is the opportunity the pay back (or pay forward) the assistance we have received in our lives. By helping others see and navigate the obstacles they encounter, we help our mentees find a place at the table and, in doing so, we encourage more equitable, representative, and successful communities to do the work that matters most.

Working toward Areté
Share your ideas for helping mentees or, if you’ve been mentored, explain which our your mentor’s actions and characteristics have been most valuable for you.

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