mentorship at work

Rules of engagement for aspiring Mentors

As a senior manager, have you ever contemplated or considered yourself as a mentor?

As a rookie in the corporate world, most of the employees who enter an organization pray for a mentor who would guide them through the shoals of the corporate corridors and take them to success. A lot of questions often float around like – what makes a good mentor, how does he help you, what makes you eligible etc. In searching for answers to my questions, this is what I found and now share.

Like a lot of the words in our current dictionary, the term ‘Mentor’ also stems from Greek. Historically, the first reference of Mentor is in the Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey as an Ithacan noble and a friend of Odysseus who was entrusted with the care of his son Telemachus when Odysseus set out for the Trojan War. Later in the poem, the goddess Athena assumes the form of Mentor to serve as teacher, guardian, and protector in a quasi-parental role.

A mentoring relationship is often defined as “ a dynamic and reciprocal relationship where a more experienced person acts as a guide, role model, teacher and sponsor of a less experienced person.” The protégées are entitled to receive knowledge, advice, support and opportunity in their pursuit of professional excellence from their mentors.

It is an intentional relationship where the mentor selects their protégées carefully, invest their time and energy in getting to know them and then offering them support and exposure within the organization. At first glance, most benefits show in the protégées kitty with accelerated career mobility, high salaries, a strong professional identity and a reputation for being on the leadership path. Research show that the benefits to the mentors are as manifold as those to the protégées – Self fulfillment and a feeling of self-satisfaction, enhanced creativity and professional synergy, development of a loyal support base, recognition from an organization for talent development and leaving a acknowledged professional legacy within the organization.

mentoring at work with happy people

Can I be a mentor?” is a question that oftentimes passes the minds of people in leadership roles wanting to venture into the field of mentoring. While of some of them have benefitted from a successful mentor-protégée relationship, most have been bereft of such influences and have made it on their own steam. To know if you qualify to make the cut, you need to take a closer look at yourself. Research shows there is a wide range of personality traits that can be found in good mentors, but there are some critical interpersonal skills and personality traits that contribute to successful mentoring. Protégées are naturally drawn to mentors who are warm, good listeners and unconditionally accepting. The other traits that often work in successful partnerships are mentors who have personal integrity, respect for values, sensitivity towards the protégée, a reputation for toughness (with fairness) and a pursuit of excellence himself.

In order to arrange a mentor – protégée relationship, first you need to examine whether you would make a successful mentor, introspect on your personality and your relationship habits. You would also need to figure whether you have time, bandwidth and energy to expend on another individual in a professional capacity.

Then you have to carefully select your protégée, a process akin to investing. You have limited resources and expect good returns. Research indicates that seniors in most fields choose protégées with obvious career potential and past accomplishments that also reflect well on the mentor’s competence in developing talent. While choosing protégées, the key skills to be kept in mind are ambition, initiative, intelligence, interpersonal skills, personal values and emotional stability. It is important to commit to mentor a junior colleague after some period of informal work and interaction with him.

During the initial period of mentorship, the master must study the student – his mix of talents and weaknesses, fears and personal challenges through exposure to various situations, and observing how they function. Observe patterns that occur across various settings, relationships and assignments. One of the primary tasks of the mentor is to be explicit in the understanding of the junior’s strengths and weaknesses and in communicating this information to him in a non-judgmental manner. Once protégées can see themselves through the lens of the mentor, they will have the mentor’s validation and the desire to build on their strengths and work on their weaknesses.

During the formation stage of the mentorship, mentors should initiate discussions on expectations on topics like nature of the relationship, roles, responsibilities, frequency of contact, issues of confidentiality, typical work style, the mentors strengths and comfort zones, and context for interactions. In order to avoid mentorship dysfunction, it is important for the mentor to take primary responsibility in clarifying expectations, as the protégées are new in this role and hence prone to self-doubt and hesitation.

Once the expectations are set and the relationship boundaries defined, then starts the mentorship process where the senior member is expected to shape the career and potential of the protégées. There are several ways in which one can create valuable and often, lifelong impact such as:

1)      Setting a rule of expecting excellence and nothing less. Never settle for mediocrity from your protégée. It is the mentor’s right to demand excellence, but not perfection. Demonstrate confidence in their capacity to meet your expectations through positive reinforcement of their strengths.

2)      Setting short-term and long-term goals. Understand the protégées career dream. Consider which opportunities would prepare him to achieve this dream. Break the progression of the career path, into short- and long-term goals. Have a clear goal in mind for the next periodic evaluation.

mentorship at work

3)      Be a teacher and a Coach. Take time to give direct and explicit instruction on the various roles and functions in your vocation. Intentionally demonstrate and describe complex professional skills. Give direction about the way to present self, how to enhance certain skills, how to navigate organizational politics and increasing professional confidence through proactive volunteering and risk-taking. Deliberately challenge protégées with demanding assignments tailored to their abilities and performance thresholds; thus increasing their technical skill development and professional identity enhancement.

4)      Give protégées exposure and promote their visibility.  Allow the protégée to function as your emissary, under your aegis. Ensure that the protégées successes and achievements are made visible within the entire organization, specially among the mentor’s peers. Create opportunities for protégée collaboration on high-visibility projects and for interfacing with critical stakeholders.

5)      Nurture creativity. Encourage the practice of innovative thoughts, risk taking and creative problem solving. Allow the protégée to develop and experiment with novel approach while tempering the process with pragmatism and voice of experience.

6)      Provide Constructive criticism. Confront self-defeating, unprofessional or career-inhibiting behavior. Critical reflections and performance feedback are very important for the development of the protégée. Lay the foundation of ethical behavior, professional integrity through example. Help them in the process of having a self-administrative process of evaluation of every project and their behavior on it.

One of the most key elements of the successful mentorship program is periodic evaluation done at set intervals, more frequently in the beginning of the relationship with decreasing frequency as the relationship progresses. This is the most important responsibility where the mentor has to take ownership. It is important for the mentor to use the evaluation as a means of evaluating the outcomes so far and for setting future directionality to the process.

The final step of the mentoring process is the preparing for closure. Mentors are for life, but as the protégée gains success and confidence, there is diminishing need for the active role played by the mentor so far.  Rather than allowing a long-term mentor relationship to end suddenly or fade away unacknowledged, it is best for a redefinition of the relationship on terms agreeable to both of you.

Mentoring as a process reflects the passing on your professional legacy. Enjoy it !