How to Be a Better Mentor

Fast Company's readers' network embraces the idea of mentoring — but finds that some relationship models work better than others. Listen in as Company of Friends members share what they've learned.

With members in 154 cities in 34 countries, Fast Company's readers' network is a natural place to turn to for support and advice from like-minded people. For the past few years, members of the Company of Friends (CoF) in cities like San Diego, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC have been organizing peer-to-peer mentoring circles in which members help each other build skills, make decisions, and solve problems.

Fast Company recently gathered several coordinators heading those efforts to examine mentoring within the CoF and to ask what works — and what doesn't — in mentoring relationships. The group tackled the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between mentors?
  • How are people paired?
  • How does each CoF group — aka cell — support mentoring activity?
  • Does cell-level mentoring have attributes that could be rolled out across the entire Company of Friends?

The conversation was fun and productive. I couldn't help but feel we started building something that could have a powerful impact on members and cells around the world.

The Participants

Note: CoF profiles are accessible to CoF members only.

Mentoring Models

The group discussed the various formats they've tried and the advantages and hazards of each.

Traditional mentoring: In this model, people seeking mentoring assistance are paired with people who agree to mentor them. Jody Lentz asked his cell members two straightforward questions: Who wants to be a mentor? Who needs a mentor? The DC cell reports that it now has more than 70 people involved in its traditional mentoring project. Chicago cell coordinator Dan Limbach, however, worries that it may become difficult to find enough mentors to meet demand; he suggests examining other models.

Reciprocal mentoring: In this Pay It Forward model, people seeking mentors agree to mentor other participants. This isn't the same as direct peer-to-peer mentoring because participants have two simultaneous mentoring relationships at any given time: their mentor and the person they're mentoring. This model furthers the concepts of six degrees of separation and overlapping networks.

Peer-to-peer mentoring: San Diego, the first cell to launch a mentoring project, follows this model. People are paired with mentors, but the relationship works both ways. This model is similar in some ways to cocounseling. Eloy Maes says that this process works best when both people have something to offer each other — sometimes something as simple as friendship. Beginning in May, the San Diego cell will recast this project as "Friend to Friend," pairing cell members in a less formal way.

Group mentoring: Dan Limbach is involved in a group outside of the CoF that focuses on "Power-of-Ten" circles in which 10 people gather regularly to discuss what they're working on and to help each other make connections in their professional and personal lives. (To learn more about the Power-of-Ten Breakfast Salons, visit NetWorlding.) The Philadelphia group recently helped a team member solve some problems inside and outside his company. Valeria Maltoni says that the group normally ends meetings with an open call for group support and mentoring opportunities. She hopes that the group will try the small-group roundtable idea for introductions and support in the future. That might be a good way to increase the potential benefits of mentoring — 10 heads are better than 2 — and it might be a productive way to foster subgroups and social capital within a cell.

What Does It Mean to Mentor?

The Company of Friends has spent quite a bit of time addressing what it takes to be a good mentor, what makes a solid mentoring relationship, and what value proposition mentors face. Here are some of the ideas that we discussed:

  • We agree that a successful mentoring relationship needs to benefit both parties — not just the person being mentored. Craig Wiggins says that he's learned a great deal from his mentors — even in situations where he's been the "expert." And Valeria Maltoni says that she was able to connect her mentor, who is her former manager, with several organizations that have since become clients.
  • The value proposition for potential mentors needs to be clear. Eloy Maes notes that several of San Diego's most qualified mentors bailed out of the project because of other time commitments. He also says that the best mentors are often coaches or teachers.
  • Dan Limbach suggests that mentoring needs to move beyond simple conversation. "I can find people for ongoing discussions," he says. "What I would want is a mentor who could teach me specific things about running my business."

Pairing Mentors

Good mentoring relationships begin with good matches. To ensure productive mentoring projects, it's important to consider who is paired with whom as mentors. We talked about several corporate and cell experiences with pairing mentors.

  • Valeria Maltoni says that her employer, Destiny Web Solutions, is starting a pilot mentoring program in which managers volunteer as mentors.
  • Most of us agree that mentoring projects need to be relatively informal and unstructured — otherwise they feel forced. To make an organic mentoring project, announce the idea, see who responds, perhaps find a volunteer to handle the logistics, provide a few possible formats, and let the mentoring happen. Then share the success stories and stumbling blocks with other participants so the group can help itself.
  • Valeria Maltoni says that actively trying to match mentor pairs didn't work in Philadelphia. People had common interests, but they didn't feel committed to meeting or developing an ongoing support relationship.
  • In San Diego, pairs were selected randomly. Eloy Maes says that some pairs worked well — and that others did not. Both cases provided some surprises. Maes suggests that it's important to find out what people have to offer each other — and pass on contacts to other cell members.
  • Dan Limbach suggests constructing a worksheet or form to match people based on goals and skills.
  • The cell in Washington, DC is automating its mentor-pairing process. If it works well, Larry Brown says that he'll share it with the rest of the CoF. Until then, the Peer Resources mentoring directory might prove useful. It even includes a mentoring test that gauges people's mentoring potential.

Other Aspects and Ideas

  • Mentoring is not necessarily a long-term engagement. Both the DC and San Diego cells have set up two- or three-month mentoring engagements. Larry Brown says that the group views those months as a trial period — if the relationship is not working out, the pair can sever their connection. According to Eloy Maes, the San Diego cell found that two months is an ideal duration. Over the course of the year, you get to know more people better. If it makes sense to continue a mentoring relationship after a formal session ends, that will happen naturally. Check out Company of Mentors for more information on San Diego's approach to mentoring.
  • Cell coordinators consistently report that mentoring projects attract and involve people who are not actively involved in the cell. In DC, none of the people involved in the mentoring project come to regular cell meetings. The same is true in San Diego. People who haven't immersed themselves in the CoF might embrace a mentoring project because it holds a clear value proposition. Mentoring might help cells build toward the critical mass that they need to thrive.
  • Even though many cells are organizing mentoring projects at the local level, the CoF has tremendous potential for global mentoring as well. After tax season ends, Larry Brown is going to pilot a mentoring project for CoF coordinators and planning-team members. And Fast Company is considering building peer-to-peer mentoring into the CoF web globally. In a perfect future world, you'll be able to join a CoF-wide mentoring project and select whether you want a local mentor or a mentor outside your area, and Fast Company will help you facilitate that mentoring relationship online and offline.

Mentoring Resources

Peer Resources
Starting and maintaining a mentor program or service.

Want to Grow As a Leader? Get a Mentor!
Even top executives need mentors — and sometimes the best mentors work in another company.

Company of Mentors
The CoF cell in San Diego is treating associates not as members, but as mentors.

HP's Mentoring Connection
Hewlett-Packard uses email to make thousands of connections with kids and adults.

Women's Ways of Mentoring
Call it "wo-mentoring" — a new approach that's more about commitment and learning than about chemistry and power.

Radical Mentoring
The cofounder and CEO of iVillage on tough mentoring.

Deadly Sins of Mentoring
How to make a mentoring relationship work.

Mentors Wanted
Rules for maneuvering the mentoring road.

Mentor-centives
How Netcentives incorporates its mentorship program.

Do-It-Yourself Mentoring
The keys to self-coaching.

Future Chat Topics

Wednesday, April 11, 2001 — 4 PM (EST)
Last week's international CoF chat attracted more participants than previous sessions. We're well on our way to a lively biweekly online event! If you live outside of North America, join us for a free-form discussion of the global CoF movement, your local cell activities, and how we might build on the idea of an international chat.

Wednesday, April 18, 2001 — 11 AM (EST)
Join us for a discussion about how to best plan speaker-oriented events, how to develop an ongoing speaker series, how to find the best speakers and workshop leaders for your cell, and how to manage the group's relationship with the speaker.

To join a scheduled chat, click here. (Note: The CoF coordinator chats are open to CoF coordinators who participate in the CoF coordinators' mailing list only. To get more involved in the CoF — or to join your cell's planning team — contact your local coordinator.)

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