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Eight Essential Rules For First-Time Mentors

Hint: Don’t use all your time together to regale your mentee with tales from your early career.

Eight Essential Rules For First-Time Mentors
[Photo: Harli Marten/Unsplash]

First things first: Becoming somebody’s mentor is definitely worth your time. Done right, mentorship relationships can benefit even experienced professionals: You get a chance to share your experiences, learn about challenges you might not be aware of, and uncover ways of doing things that you otherwise wouldn’t. A mentee can be your eyes and ears at the front lines of your industry long after you’ve moved into managerial roles.

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But if you’ve never been a mentor before, there are a few things you need to know to make it a worthwhile experience on both sides of the table. Following these eight guidelines can help you make sure that it is.

1. Help Your Mentee Understand And Define Their Goals

This is arguably your No. 1 job as a mentor. Your mentee may show up with a ton of ambition, but may need your help articulating those goals to make sure they’re productive. So help them define those goals up front, then structure your conversations around those.

For many mentees, this is the hardest part of the process; they know they’d like help but may not always know how to scope or sequence their needs. Help them nail down objectives for your time together that are measurable and manageable within the timeframe you’ve agreed to meet. Make sure each of those goals are “SMART”–specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound–and clear. Remember not to bite off more than you can chew. A good rule of thumb is to focus on one goal over the course of three months. You’ll be able to check in regularly to measure progress and adjust as you go.

2. Ask Questions About The Big Picture

Before you dive into problem solving any particular objective, spend some time getting up to speed on historical context to help inform the advice you may give: Who are the major players in your mentee’s life? What are they grappling with most right now? How did they get here? What’s their relationship like with their manager/peers/direct reports? How do they think you can help? This contextual information can help you better understand their goals, the type of help they’ve received in the past, their past efforts, and how you’re best suited to help them make progress.

3. Be Consistent In Offering Your Time

Once you have an intro conversation under your belt, it’s time to dig in. As you move toward regular meetings, it can be tempting to deprioritize them, but it’s crucial that you don’t. Mentorship time should be sacrosanct: When you move a meeting, you signal to your mentee that they’re not worth it. Consistency is the key to establishing and deepening trust. It allows you to quickly go deep toward potential solutions, rather than revisiting old conversations because you haven’t seen each other in a while. If you know you can’t commit to meeting regularly, now isn’t the right time for you to be a mentor.

4. Keep An Open Mind To Problem Solving

You may be more experienced than your mentee, but stay open to the possibility that your advice might not always be right for them, and let them know you’re open to their feedback. Phrases like, “Tell me if I’m getting off track,” “Interrupt me if I’m operating on old information,” and, “Don’t hesitate to let me know if this isn’t resonating” show that you’re here for your mentee and don’t mind switching gears if what you’re saying isn’t productive. It’s totally okay if something you say doesn’t land. Rather than shy away from these moments, embrace them as a learning opportunity.

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5. Make Referrals

Whenever your mentee needs help beyond your area of expertise, connect them with others who are more knowledgeable than you. Remember that while you may be more experienced than your mentee, you won’t have the answer to every question, and that doesn’t make you a terrible mentor. Great mentors recognize when there’s a more relevant resource at hand–whether that’s an article, book, or person in their network.

6. Remember That It’s Not About You

Yes, being a mentor can be valuable for you, too, but be careful not to unload too much of your own baggage on your mentee. Keep the focus on your mentee instead. It’s easy to reminisce about your early days while offering advice, or to explain a problem based on what you know happened in the past. Historical context can be helpful, just as long as you aren’t unconsciously using it to dismiss a challenge under the present circumstances (“that’s just the way things work here”) or, worse, tainting your mentee’s perspective about working on particular teams, initiatives, or with particular people (“don’t worry about so-and-so, they always do that”). If you find yourself talking about your own experience for the bulk of your time with your mentee, it’s time to take a step back.

7. Practice Active Listening

And yes, active listening does take practice–as well as persistence. It’s natural for our minds to run on their own, and you may find yourself mentally problem solving for your mentee while they’re still talking through a problem. Try to calm the inner voice that exclaims, “I have the perfect advice for this scenario!” and listen all the way through instead. You’re more likely to really hear mentee’s needs that way–both stated and implied. Ask questions to clarify their perspective and encourage their own thinking on the challenge at hand, rather than trying to jump in and solve it before they’ve finished. There are many ways to be a better listener, of course–these are just a start.

8. Maintain Confidentiality

What your mentee tells you should be kept strictly confidential; that’s the basis of your relationship, after all, and it’s why your mentee is coming to you rather than, say, their manager. The trust and shared vulnerability between you allows you to uncover your mentee’s true needs and to make progress on them. Keep those lips sealed, or you risk your relationship crumbling. The one exception? If your mentee is facing an issue you think HR should help handle, like sexual harassment, then it’s best to consider looping in the experts; here’s a guide for supporting somebody through the workplace reporting process.

For first-timers, mentorship be a bit of a figure-it-out-as-you-go experience. But if you follow these eight rules, you’ll be able to provide real value to your mentee while getting something out of it yourself: win-win.

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About the author

Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., Newsweek, and HuffPost. She currently manages a team of researchers at Pinterest, in addition to leading a company-wide mentorship program.

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