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How To Be A Better Mentor

If you find yourself in a teaching role, be prepared to learn on the job, and keep practicing your mentoring skills.

How To Be A Better Mentor
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Remember that teacher you had in school—or that boss from one of your first jobs—who made you take a step back and think about what you really wanted to achieve in life? That instructor’s profound effect on your personal and professional growth will forever dictate how you handle challenges and resolve problems. At some point, you’ll be asked to leave that same profound effect on somebody else.

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Those who learn how to become great teachers are the people who will lead good companies to greatness. Your goal as a risk-taker and up-and-comer within your organization is to inspire younger peers through action. The decisions you make—in management and in how you present yourself to the world—can leave a lasting impression on your direct reports.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you don’t know the first thing about teaching because you studied something entirely different in school. We’re not necessarily born great mentors. We’re not born great at anything. Everything that you’re great at you learned over time; everything you love about what you do has been cultivated through practice.

As I’m now supposed to be teaching alongside creating, I wanted to figure out if there was synergy between how I approach a creative project and how I instruct new hires on how to do their jobs well.

1. Let Go of My Ego

What surprised me most about newfound leadership responsibilities is how much time you need to reflect on your own actions before you try to teach someone something new.

We’re all privy to egotistical thoughts—those pat-yourself-on-the-back moments—especially after a new promotion or raise. Daily work can be such a grind that when we’re rewarded with a new title or raise, we let our guard down and let some unprofessional thoughts slip out. A J.Crew executive chronicled his reaction to company layoffs all over social media in June 2015, which many industry insiders deemed inappropriate.

But the first step to becoming a great teacher is learning how to reject the behaviors that come with power. A February 2015 study from the University of Amsterdam found powerful people draw inspiration from themselves rather than from others. That’s not a huge surprise.

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Lead researcher Gerben van Kleef suggests that to be inspired by another person we must perceive that person as having some quality superior to our own. That can be tough for some people to stomach. Therefore, powerful people sometimes reject the possibility that they’re not excellent at everything they do. Don’t let this type of behavior hinder your ability to learn and lead.

Instead, accept that your potential as a professional only becomes stronger as you surround yourself with inspired minds—those you have nurtured through their own career growth.

A business acquaintance once told me that you can pay someone great to help you on a project, and they’ll do it without question once. But help someone learn the ropes of a new industry, and that person will honor you for life. I’d like to think that’s true 90% of the time.

2. Lead by Doing, Always

Actions speak louder than words—or facts when it comes to education. Research from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 found that the most effective teaching methods are those that truly engage learners. But how can you evoke engagement in a traditional work setting or in a clearly defined role?

Focus less on learning the facts, and the process involved in understanding a new idea or a customer base. By first giving new hires a baseline knowledge of the business landscape, and then helping them build upon that existing foundation through trial and error, you essentially allow your team members the freedom to form opinions, retract former ideas, and edit their outlook as they consume and retain insight.

I’ve written before about the importance of failure, and I’m going to take it a step further. There’s value in doing mundane jobs poorly at the beginning of your career because it gives you the ability to endure hard times, and appreciate when moments are truly special.

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I spent the first year and a half out of college working the overnight shift at a local newspaper. I wouldn’t wish the overnight news shift on anyone, but it forced me to learn the newspaper business from the ground up, which is knowledge I appreciate even more now. My editors taught me everything I needed to know by putting me on boring jobs and forcing me to navigate my way—through hard work—to more exciting projects.

3. Audit Your Behavior Often

Another huge part of becoming a leader is taking the time to audit your own behavior to ensure you are modeling a desired work ethic among staff. It can be a difficult transition to go from peer to manager, and you’ll have to ask tough questions like: “Is it OK for me to socialize with colleagues in this way any more?”

On a deeper level, you need to accept weaknesses in your own character and then find ways to correct course quickly. In a June 2015 study from the University of Illinois, researchers found that adults preparing to take on mentoring roles should modify their own behaviors and personal qualities to have the right skills replicated by younger employees. The study found that new hires are extremely impressionable and, despite myths about millennials being stubborn and dismissive, these professionals are eager to learn and grow within organizations.

This was a serious lesson learned. Before I can expect any new team member to be the best he or she can be in the workplace, I need to regularly grade my own actions and recognize what I could have done better.

Whether leadership is something you’ve been seeking since your first job or you’ve recently fallen into a role that requires you to step up, you first must understand that mentorship and teaching is a process learned through practice and action. The more you try to pretend you know it all, the less trustworthy you’ll appear to your new team. Let your hires know this is also a learning process for you, and you’ll quickly earn their respect and praise.

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About the author

Ted Karczewski is a writer and marketing strategist who focuses on bridging the gap between the creative and business worlds. He is the managing editor of the Content Standard, a media site covering creativity, innovation, leadership, and business transformation for Skyword, a content marketing platform and services company.

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