After Kristin Mosher signed up for Pathbuilders, an Atlanta, Georgia, leadership and mentoring company, and found out her new mentor was a man, she was a little skeptical. Newly promoted and leading a production and operations services team within Turner Sports’ Creative Services Sports Unit, she was unsure that a man would understand some of the challenges women face in the workplace leadership roles.
Now, she admits, she couldn’t have been more wrong. Her mentor, Peter Scalera, currently vice president of trade marketing and execution at InComm in Atlanta, brought several important attributes to his role that made him a great fit—and helped Mosher settle into her big new role with ease. He even went so far as to meet with her supervisor and some of her informal mentors at Turner to get a better sense of who she was and where she could use advice.
"He made himself completely accessible. We related to each other and there was an understanding of confidentiality. He really went above what could have been expected," she says.
There are mentors, and then there are kick-ass mentors. And if you’re going to take on the mantle of giving someone else career guidance, insight and advice, you might as well aspire to greatness. Here’s how.
Scalera’s field trip to Turner is a great example of how exceptional mentors can help their protégés. That involvement is one of the hallmarks of great mentors, says Ellen Ensher, Ph.D., professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and co-author of Power Mentoring: How Mentors and Protégés Get the Most Out of Their Relationships. Great mentors take the job seriously and learn as much as they can about the people they are counseling. It’s tough to be a great mentor if you don’t put in the time doing your homework to understand the person and his or her career and life situation, she says. Act as if it was your career on the line.
When Scalera mentors someone, he doesn’t limit meetings to once-a-month conference calls or coffee. If you’re letting a month lapse between meetings, you’re not really building a relationship with your protégé, he says. He’ll hop on the phone to talk through a work challenge or will review a PowerPoint deck before a big meeting. That kind of accessibility makes all the difference, Ensher says. Great mentors are available in those high-stress moments to be a coach as you stretch to master a new skill or navigate a crisis situation.
Being a great mentor isn’t just about listening—it’s about listening with intent. Scalera, who won Pathbuilders Mentor of the Year Award in 2012 after Mosher nominated him for it, asks questions about his protégé’s current responsibilities and challenges, as well as his or her goals and aspirations. When he doesn’t understand something or thinks that there may be more to the story, he asks more questions. That helps him draw parallels to his own experiences to gain more insight and give good advice.
"It doesn’t really matter what company you have worked for, if you [have similar] roles in your past. I can quickly figure out when there are a lot of similarities between the experiences I had and what [a protégé is] dealing with," he says.
You’re not doing your protégé any favors by being too nice or not addressing the tough issues head on, Ensher says. You need to be straightforward. When you think your protégé is screwing up or about to knock it out of the park, say so. Unlike a therapist or even a life coach who isn’t supposed to interject his or her own feelings into the conversation, a mentor has more latitude to share personal experiences and insights—and even to say, "This is what I would do if I was you."
Assuming believe in and trust your protégé, making introductions is an important part of being a kick-ass mentor. You have the benefits of being higher up on the proverbial food chain and, likely having a more powerful if not bigger network. If you know someone who can help your protégé, make the connection, Ensher says. And if your protégé isn’t someone who you’d be comfortable referring to a trusted colleague, it may be time to re-think the relationship.
"You have to have chemistry. And this person is going to be linked to your name if you act as a mentor. If you’re not comfortable with that, this may not be the right relationship for you," she says.
For Scalera and Mosher, the mentoring relationship had a specific time frame through the program that matched them. However, they still keep in touch and meet informally. When less formally structured relationships run their course, it’s time to know when to let go, Ensher says. Great mentors may even help their protégés find their next mentor, understanding when it’s time to let go and let someone else step in.