Mentor-protégé relationships are a unique and particularly effective method for bringing out excellence in individuals. In 9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Mentors, Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent D. O’Connell describe proven practices that mentors can use to help their protégés reach their highest potential. These practices include providing career and psychosocial support, modeling desired behaviors, uncovering protégé motivations, building rapport, inspiring protégés to ambitious goals, protecting credibility, promoting lifelong learning, and teaching strategic thinking.
MENTORING: DEFINING A COMPLEX, CHALLENGING ROLE
While mentors draw upon similar skills used by advisors, coaches, and confidants, they also employ special skills that distinguish the mentor role from other helping and teaching roles. The unique characteristics of mentoring relationships include:
*Offline assistance. Mentoring happens outside the scope of formal work responsibilities. Outcomes of the process should not be a direct part of an employee’s performance evaluation.
*Transitional assistance. Mentors often help protégés manage major transitions, such as career changes.
*Emotional connection. In a mentoring relationship, trust and a deep sense of emotional connection are developed.
*Long-term stability. The mentoring process is a bond that lasts even when there are big changes, such as a geographic relocation of one of the participants.
*Wide competence difference. For mentoring associations to be useful to mentees over their careers, mentors need to hold more senior positions and offer advice throughout the various levels of the mentees’ advancement.
*Multifaceted role. At different phases in a protégé’s development, the mentor may need to take on different roles, such as being a sponsor on a big project or being a teacher explaining effective techniques.
*Modeling performance. Telling a protégé how to do something is good, but demonstrating it is even better. For example, a mentor could invite his or her mentee to a meeting to observe the mentor’s speech-making skills.
FUNDAMENTALS OF EFFECTIVE MENTORING
Mentors need to possess three fundamental skills before they can implement the nine mentoring practices:
1. Understanding self-actualization. Once people have met their basic survival needs, their motivation turns to personal fulfillment. Mentors need to understand their protégés’ ideas of what they need to have meaningful and fulfilling careers.
2. Fostering self-awareness. Mentors must help mentees become aware of their strengths and weaknesses and guide them in developing plans for improvement.
3. Having empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s experience and engage effectively based on that understanding. Empathy can be cultivated by listening more than talking and asking open-ended questions.
MENTORING AT WORK: ADVANTAGES AND CHALLENGES
An organization can maximize the potential of its internal workforce through mentoring programs. By developing its existing staff, a company can save on the cost of hiring from the outside, uncover hidden talent, boost staff retention, and see protégés direct their creative energy toward finding innovative solutions.
The key to a successful mentoring program is to match the right level of mentoring resources to the right workers. Different combinations of resources applied to different workers yield various outcomes. For example:
*Spending a limited amount of time and energy mentoring workers whose jobs are repetitive with limited growth opportunity may result in talent stasis, or decreased opportunities for people to create value within their organizations.
*Spending a large amount of mentoring resources across the board for everyone in the organization can result in wasted resources because not all workers have the potential to develop enough to justify the investment.
*Spending only a small amount of mentoring resources on people who have great upside potential results in wasted opportunities for development.
*Spending a large amount of resources on mentoring and carefully matching the right mentors to the right workers provides the best leveraging of talent and resources.
EFFECTIVE MATCHING OF MENTOR AND PROTÉGÉ
Informal mentoring occurs when a mentor and protégé naturally gravitate toward each other and form a bond. It is the most effective type of mentoring. It often happens when a senior leader in a company wants to help a junior member who is having career struggles similar to what the senior member once experienced. Or, a junior employee may aspire to a higher position and approach the senior person for advice. This type of mentoring relationship tends to have strong emotional components.
In formal mentoring, a company organizes a mentoring system to match mentors to protégés. Since people are directed to be together rather than naturally coming together, there will need to be a period of trust building and exploration of joint interests.
How organizations can make the best matches in a formal mentoring system is not fully understood, although it is sometimes compared to a dating service. An essential ingredient in the matchmaking is giving the mentee major input into the process. A company can compile a group of people who are willing to be mentors and then the protégés can select who they want to work with. Mentor profiles can help protégés find people with backgrounds, positions, or other qualities that might be a good fit. Other types of information that should be included in a mentor profile include:
*Background information, such as age, location, marital status, ethnicity, and college affiliations.
*Career details, including current and previous positions.
*Professional interests, such as an interest in technology or an industry specialty.
*Personal interests that can help build rapport, such as politics, sports, or fitness.
MENTORING AS BOTH CAREER AND PSYCHOSOCIAL SUPPORT
Great mentoring includes a blend of career counseling and psychosocial support. Informal mentors give both types of support, while formal mentors tend to stick to career advising. The superior success of informal mentoring, as measured by greater satisfaction and better organization loyalty, suggests that adding psychosocial support to formal programs could be worthwhile.
When giving psychosocial support, mentors must pay attention to and address their protégés’ emotional states, such as their feelings about their progress, confidence, and identities. The quality of this type of relationship is deep, and mentees often view their mentors as friends, parental figures, role models, or trusted counselors.
In their roles as career advocates, mentors not only offer sage advice, but they can also provide the following assistance:
*Sponsorship: Mentors are able to expose their protégés to a wide range of influential people.
*Coaching: This is a combination of teaching and motivating protégé performance.
*Protection: Mentors can shield their protégés from harmful situations.
*Challenges: Mentors can identify new challenges for mentees that will help them build new skills.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #1: MODEL EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Mentors’ behaviors have a more powerful impact on protégés than words do. Protégés pay attention to behaviors, and when they observe their mentors’ traits and see a connection to career success, they will want to adopt similar behaviors.
Mentors should model several different types of behavior. For example, technical expertise is important, but interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence hat have the greatest impact. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize emotional responses to situations and manage them productively. There are four attributes mentors need to demonstrate strong emotional intelligence:
1. Self-awareness. When mentors are aware of their own weaknesses and discuss them candidly with protégés, they are modeling self-awareness. For example, a mentor can ask a protégé for feedback on any aspect of the mentor’s performance. By accepting feedback without defensiveness, the mentor has set an example of behavior that the protégé can emulate.
2. Self-management. Self-management involves dealing positively with stress and not letting emotions overtake rational thinking when difficult challenges arise.
3. Relationship awareness. Mentors who have good relationship awareness are able to step outside themselves and see situations from others’ perspectives. They begin discussions by first trying to understand another’s viewpoint.
4. Relationship management. Conflict in situations or relationships can impede progress. A good mentor knows how to manage conflict by respecting others’ viewpoints and by looking for positive change.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #2: INITIALLY, EXPLORE INTRINSIC AND EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION
Protégés may be motivated by intrinsic factors, extrinsic factors, or a combination of the two. Early in their mentoring relationships, mentors should assess how their protégés are motivated and adapt their mentoring approaches.
People who respond well to intrinsic motivation are interested in performing activities simply for the joy of learning and growing. People who respond to extrinsic motivation are driven by factors outside of themselves, such as a chance for a raise or promotion. The majority of people fall along the spectrum between the two.
Mentors can determine their protégés’ motivational styles by asking questions such as, “What is the purpose of our sessions together?” and “What about your personal or work life excites you?” A person who is more intrinsically motivated will answer using terms such as learning or exploring, while a person who is extrinsically motivated may say that he or she wants to get a higher position or make more money.
Mentoring approaches differ depending on how individuals are motivated. Mentors should let intrinsically motivated protégés drive the mentoring process toward what would be most satisfying and fulfilling for them. For extrinsically motivated protégés, mentors must take a more directive approach by designing plans with specific milestones for them to complete.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #3: BUILD RAPPORT THROUGH UNDERSTANDING OF DIFFERENT PEOPLE STYLES
There are four different personality styles that individuals fall into, and each category represents differing degrees of assertiveness and responsiveness in their dealings with others. Mentors do not need to be matched with those with similar styles, but they do need to understand the differences in the styles and how best to interact with each.
1. Drivers are results-driven. They are decisive and work at a rapid pace. They are not interested in small details and they have a direct interpersonal style. Drivers are highly assertive and less responsive to others’ needs. Mentors should set clear goals, be available for questions, and let Drivers take charge of setting objectives.
2. Expressives are outgoing and energetic, and they enjoy being in the spotlight. They have strong people skills and are less task focused than other styles. Expressives score high on both the assertiveness and responsiveness scales. Mentors will need flexibility in implementing mentoring plans because Expressives are subject to shifts in interests and priorities. Expressives will need some independence in executing their plans and are responsive to praise.
3. Amiables are team players who are easygoing, like to work with others, and do well in service positions. They are comfortable with routine. They score higher on the responsiveness scale and lower on the assertiveness scale than other styles. Mentors should be aware that Amiables may be motivated to please their mentors, but they may be passive about setting strategies and taking bold steps toward innovation.
4. Analyticals are perfectionists; they are low-key in disposition and task oriented. They prefer working alone and may keep their feelings to themselves. Analyticals are lower on both the assertiveness and responsiveness scales. Mentors should make sure their plans are in writing so that Analyticals can review and assess them. Mentoring that is focused more on career coaching and less on psychosocial aspects will be better received by Analyticals.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #4: IDENTIFY AND PURSUE STRETCH GOALS
Great mentors inspire their protégés to aim high in their goals. On their own, people will find ways to advance in their careers, but mentors can help protégés aspire to loftier goals that considerably stretch their skills. Stretch goals are ones that cannot be met by taking baby steps; rather, they can only be reached by taking big leaps.
Mentors can start the stretch process by talking with protégés about where they see themselves in their careers in 5 or 10 years. The mentor can then help them widen their ambitions and inspire them to greater heights.
In setting stretch goals, there is a risk that the goal could feel unattainable and the protégée might become overwhelmed and lose confidence. The key to avoiding this is for the mentor to work with the protégé on defining a path toward the goal with measureable milestones. The plan to reach the goal should not be too detailed, as there needs to be room for autonomy and flexibility.
Should there be a fallback plan in case the stretch goal starts looking too ambitious? The general consensus among mentors is no — setting stretch goals is about reaching high and pursuing excellence and not about derailing fears.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #5: REINFORCE THE IMPORTANCE OF SAFEGUARDING CREDIBILITY
Helping a protégé establish and maintain credibility is a valuable endeavor. Credibility means that what a person says can be believed. Mentors can help their protégés by watching to see if their actions match their words. If protégés are not fulfilling their promises, they need to be made aware of the lapse and understand that once credibility is lost, it is very hard to regain.
Values and action also align in people with credibility. Mentors can learn about their protégés’ values through discussion or by asking them to write statements about what they believe. Another way to uncover values is to have protégés write mock speeches accepting future awards for the values that they have demonstrated during their careers.
Another aspect of credibility is having the technical knowledge that one professes to have. People need to know what they are doing if their authority on a subject is to be respected. Credibility in a subject can be earned by demonstrating useful and current knowledge and by having relevant work experience, academic experience, or professional licensure.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #6: FOSTER STRATEGIC THINKING
A valuable role mentors can play is helping transform their protégés into strategic thinkers. It can be a big shift for a person to change from being a follower to a big picture thinker, but strategic thinking is a skill that can be taught. Developing the ability to assess alternatives and make strategic plans entails three behaviors:
1. Strategic attention. Shifting people who are used to thinking about immediate issues to thinking about longer-term issues requires raising their strategic attention. Mentors can aid this process by redirecting discussions about the “now” to conversations about future consequences.
2. Data interpretation. After data is assembled, it needs to be put into a framework that make sense and that can be used for decision making. To do this, mentors can guide protégés through the process of discovering core themes behind the information.
3. Strategic innovation. Once the data is processed, mentors can encourage protégés to think outside the box for innovative solutions. This can be done by asking probing questions that require them to look deep into data.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #7: ENCOURAGE THE PROTÉGÉ TO DRAFT AN INITIAL MENTORING PLAN, ON HIS OR HER OWN
A written mentoring plan is important so that both mentors and mentees can confirm that they have the same visions of their goals and steps. While the two parties should collaborate on the plan, it is useful for protégés to draw up the first draft. This gives them time to reflect on what they hope to accomplish.
To draft a mentoring plan, protégés must:
*Self-evaluate. Protégés must identify what their skills, strengths, weaknesses, and long-term career desires are.
*Identify opportunities. They must also consider what career and personal opportunities exist, which of them hold the most interest, and what skills they would have to develop in order to be ready for the opportunities.
*Write the mentoring plan. Next, protégés must list the skills they need to develop and the milestones on the way to achievement.
*Discuss the plan. Over multiple sessions, mentors and protégés should discuss the plan so mentors understand their motivations, goals, and direction.
*Adjust the plan. The plan should provide direction for the mentoring process, but it should not be too detailed. Instead, it should be a living and breathing document that is continually revised as milestones are met or goals change.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #8: IDENTIFY AND LEVERAGE TEACHABLE MOMENTS
Great mentors prepare and watch for teachable moments. A teachable moment occurs when a situation causes a person to be especially receptive to learning. For example, a doctor can talk to a patient about quitting smoking without having any impact; however, if an X-ray comes back showing black spots in his or her lung, the person may be more ready to hear about the effects of smoking.
POWERFUL PRACTICE #9: REINFORCE THE VALUE OF LIFELONG LEARNING
Research indicates that over the next 10 years, most workers will need major retraining to keep up with changes in the world and workplace. Mentors can help protégés through this training, and they can also help prepare them for the future by instilling in them an appreciation for lifelong learning.
Lifelong learning is essential if workers are to stay informed on what is happening in the world and their vocations. If they want to be viewed as credible and relevant in their professions, they need to keep current. Improving knowledge in a wide variety of areas can also help individuals demonstrate career competency, produce better outcomes, improve their ability to weigh alternatives, make good decisions, and augment job satisfaction.
Mentoring plans should include a section on lifelong learning. Mentors and their protégés should discuss both current and expected future training needs and how and when those needs can be addressed. As an example, a plan to improve knowledge and skills might include sections on:
*Activities, such as attending webinars or joining professional groups.
*Methods, such as doing Internet searches to find content related to professional topics.
*Frequency intervals, such as daily, ongoing, or monthly commitments to the activity.
*Expected outcomes, such as keeping credentials renewed or learning about best practices.
APPROACHES TO MENTOR TRAINING
Mentors promote lifelong learning for their protégés, but mentors themselves also need continual training to help them be more effective. Basic training for mentors includes providing them with content to help strengthen their core skills of self-actualization, empathy, and self-awareness. After assessing their emotional intelligence, mentors should talk about experiences at work where they witnessed positive and negative emotional coping skills. Role-playing exercises can also allow for practice and improvement of core skills.
Mentor training should also include segments about roles and responsibilities, such as the importance of providing both career advising and psychosocial assistance to protégés.