When one teaches two learn – tops tips to be a good mentor

By: Heidi Sundin

Over my career I have been fortunate enough to benefit from many great mentors, and I feel it is important to play that same role for others just starting out in their career or aiming to advance.

There are many benefits to being a mentor. For me, my greatest satisfaction comes from seeing others succeed. There are other surprising benefits as well. As your mentees start to develop in their career and become more senior they can often move out of the mentee role and into trusted friends and colleagues. Recently I had the experience where two of my former students reverse mentored me acting as a sounding board to provide a different perspective. I am also truly inspired by many of my mentees and former students, they often go in different paths that you could never have imagined and show talents and creativity that challenge your own assumptions.

In addition the simple process of routinely checking-in with someone and focusing on professional development shines a light on your own development. It keeps oneself in check – one of my favorite sayings is ‘when one teaches, two learn’ and this is very true when you’re mentoring.

So, what do you do when someone asks you to be his or her mentor?

Typically the mentoring arrangements as falling into three main categories: informal, formal self-managed, formal program.

Recently a colleague asked if I could mentor a staff member of his. She and I met and she expressed that she had never worked with a female manager before and had very few senior professional female role models. I thought I would share my top tips in how I approach being a mentor in a more formalised way.

Make sure the chemistry is right

In taking on a regular mentoring commitment you are going to invest time and energy into another person’s career development. It is important that the there is a ‘fit’ between you and your mentee. So before you make the commitment ensure that you have a good rapport, do some research on your mentee, and ask for some recommendations if possible.

Be clear upfront what your mentee is looking for

At your first meeting it is important to clarify what your mentee is looking for. Do they want a formal or informal arrangement? How often do they want to meet? Ensure that you set the expectations early on around these items and that you talk through how to set up meetings, how to reach you, your expectations in terms of your mentee’s meeting preparation and follow up, etc.

There are no hard or fast rules on this, tailor these expectations depending on what your mentor is looking for. Some mentees I meet fortnightly, others every two months and some once a year.

Build a roadmap to see where you are going

I generally start by understanding where my mentee is in his or her career and where they see themselves in different time horizons. While they may not have thought about it before and may not know what they want to do, we will often focus more on the characteristics of what a great professional future looks like, rather than a specific role.

This helps to identify how you might best help them, what skills to help them develop and how you might be use your network to connect them. The roadmap should be clear, but flexible and individualised for each of your mentees.

Be purposeful with your meetings

I always start every meeting with the question ‘what would you like to get out of today’s meeting’. Even if I have in mind what I think we should focus on, ultimately the mentees should drive the agenda and their own development. This builds a habit of the mentee being independent and self-driven which then filters into other parts of their career. Encourage your mentee to come with one to two items of focus in each meeting. Work through these items and at the end of the meeting check in that the mentee feels you have covered those items.

I usually set ‘homework’ for my mentees, usually one or two questions to reflect on and talk to at the next meeting, and check in with this at the beginning of the following meeting.

Make a lot of notes and as these notes build over time, you can recap with your mentee how far they have come.

Share your experiences and draw on resources

In my view time with your mentee is about them so be considered in how you share your experiences and advice. Focus more on helping your mentee approach and solve issues (how to think – not what to think). In terms of skills and experience development – draw on your networks and the many freely available resources. I often steer people towards interesting books, articles, TED talks and MOOCs (freely available online courses) where there is a skill gap.

I’m always happy to have a coffee with someone and do some informal mentoring, but more recently I prefer a slightly more formalised arrangement because I find it makes the most out of the time together. But it is not for everyone – so pick the mentoring arrangement that works best for you and make the best contribution that you feel is right for you and your mentee.

Share your experience of how you work with your mentees.

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