Making the Most of Mentoring

Making the Most of Mentoring

Mentoring is all over recent headlines with stories touting its positive effects. President Obama launched a fatherhood mentoring initiative in June 2010 and recognized the winners of the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring organization in an Oval Office ceremony. Canada’s Afghan forces are garnering news coverage as well, with soldiers teaming with Afghan counterparts in mentoring relationships while in-country peace-keeping.

These stories reflect the positive face of mentoring. But is mentoring always a plus? The Wall Street Journal published a piece entitled “When Mentoring Goes Bad” (May 24, 2010). Reading the piece gave me pause. In my 20 year career I’ve been lucky enough to have had both smart, instructive mentors and mentees. Looking back on why these relationships succeeded, I realized they were navigated using what could be dubbed the “Three Cs”: collaboration, clarity and communication.

Collaboration

Any successful relationship is a two-way street; the best mentor/protégé relationships recognize that each partner has something to offer as well as something to gain. While mentors are typically established leaders giving their counsel and time to promising up-and-comers, it’s important that the relationship be approached collaboratively.

Despite the differences in experience and seniority, a mentoring relationship is that of two equals, working together as a team to advance mutually-agreed upon goals. Seasoned business leaders have wisdom to impart but can also benefit from a younger colleague’s familiarity with newer technology and the latest global business practices. Learn from each other’s strengths.

Be sure to set the relationship up as partnership: don’t let one partner do all the giving or dominate the relationship. If the relationship is lopsided, one person may feel drained by the demands, the other that their potential is overlooked.

Clarity

Successful outcomes require clear goals. Before establishing a mentoring relationship, both parties need to understand what is required to produce a beneficial collaboration.

Partners should have a basic rapport and affinity even before establishing a more formal mentoring relationship. Keep in mind that partnerships can devolve if work styles are too dissimilar. An “in the weeds” micromanager is going to have trouble successfully mentoring a “big picture thinker” and vice versa. Similarly a workaholic may clash with a nine-to-fiver.

It’s also helpful to articulate a framework for the relationship. Are the partners working toward a set goal? Is there a timeframe for the relationship? Try to achieve as much clarity as possible upfront.

Ambiguity can lead to disconnect and hurt feelings. And both mentor/mentee should be “in for a penny, in for a pound.” If one partner loses steam or has too busy a workload to truly commit time, the other partner suffers.

Communication

Communication is key in any relationship. Mentors and mentees can’t exchange information through osmosis. Don’t let a promising relationship run off the rails due to a lack of communication.

Consider formalizing communications. Agree to meet once a week, or once a month; find a communication calendar that suits both parties’ schedules. Feedback needs to flow both ways, not just top down. Mentors can also learn from their protégés; improving leadership skills and acquiring a communications conduit for ear-to-the-ground information.

Keep communications honest. Give your partner the courtesy of constructive criticism when warranted. After all you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. And smart partners want a mentor/mentee relationship to help professional development so keep information flowing.

Finally, communicate and advocate on behalf of your partner. The best partnerships not only enhance professional skills, they are a vehicle for promoting each other’s success. A mentor can provide valuable advice defining a career path and be an unparalled advocate for their protégé’s advancement through the ranks. Similarly, protégés can not only help a partner hone leadership skills, they can promote their mentor’s leadership qualities to a larger audience.

A Push in the Right Direction

It’s been said that “mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” To get the most from mentoring, employ the “Three Cs” and watch how they come together to produce a fourth: career advancement.