Good mentoring relationships can yield a variety of benefits for both mentor and protégé. But the art of mentoring can be difficult to master—and missteps can undermine the process for each participant.
Most of the advice about how to be a good mentor is common sense, but some of the mistakes mentors make aren’t as easy to know intuitively, says Jenn Labin, founder of T.E.R.P. Associates and author of Mentoring Programs That Work. Some of the issues mentors have stem from good intentions, but miscommunication or misunderstandings can derail the relationship and its value. These are some of the things the best mentors never do.
Yes, you’ve been there. Yes, you’ve done that. But don’t jump to the conclusion that your protégé has the same issues or challenges as you, Labin says. When approached about building a skill or solving a problem, the “mentors might default to a place of, ‘Oh, well they don’t know how to do this,’ or, ‘They don’t have experience in this.’ They start freely giving advice and sharing stories and jump right in without asking some good questions to find out more,” she says.
A better approach. Get the facts. Ask good questions. Discuss the specifics of the situation. Encourage your protégé to share their own ideas or solutions. Then, once you have a clear picture of what the issue is, share your own advice, guidance, or assistance.
Good mentoring relationships have goals and objectives, says Ellen A. Ensher, PhD, a management professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and author of Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Protégés Get the Most Out of Their Relationships. Have a frank conversation upfront about what you both hope to achieve within the relationship. Ensher says it’s like starting a road trip: You wouldn’t typically depart without at least an overall sense of where you wanted to go. And more likely, you’d have specific directions and areas you wanted to explore. “That’s a great metaphor for how we should be treating mentoring relationships as well,” she says.
A better approach. “Know the beginning point. Know the end point. Have some idea of how you want to get there, but don’t be so rigid you can’t take detours,” Ensher explains.
3. Drop the ball
When you offer time, assistance, or contacts, be sure to follow through. Never underestimate the courage it takes to ask someone far more accomplished than you for help, says Sacha Nitsetska, founder of mentoring platform Mavenli.
A better approach. Follow-up is very important, especially until your protégé feels comfortable reaching out for what they need. “I have a mentor who was a founder of a multibillion-dollar company, and I always get scared talking to him because he’s so accomplished and powerful–and who am I to even talk to him? And he is the one guy that every four to five months will send a follow-up email and say, ‘How are you getting on? I remember I gave you this advice. Did you do it? Did it work out?'” she says. That kind of attention makes protégés feel grateful and invested in the relationship, so don’t let more than a few months go by without some sort of follow-up.
4. Dominate the relationship
While sharing your own stories and experiences is often useful, make sure it doesn’t cross the line into bragging or imposing your own advice on your protégé, Labin says.
A better approach. “We really need to be relying more on question-asking and facilitating their own problem solving before we start really sharing our own advice,” she says.
A talented protégé may have several mentors. Accept that and don’t get territorial, Ensher says.”Don’t expect them to be your ‘Mini Me,'” she says. Instead, introduce your protégés to contacts—possibly even other mentors. Mentoring relationships aren’t meant to be exclusive, and having a protégé who is out looking for people who can help them grow is the sign of a go-getter.
5. Avoid hard conversations
As a mentor, it’s your job to have tough conversations sometimes. You may need to point out areas where your protégé isn’t performing as well as possible or mistakes they made. If you feel you can’t give feedback, that’s a problem, Ensher says. Some research, such as David A. Thomas’s early 2000s work, “Race Matters,” suggests that mentors may have more difficulty delivering such feedback across gender, racial, or ethnic differences, she says.
A better approach. Set expectations for feedback up front, she advises. Find out how your protégé best receives feedback as well as your personal communication style. And if you are in a mentoring relationship where you feel you can’t be honest or where your feedback isn’t well-received, it may be time to rethink the relationship.
6. Resist change
As your protégé gains more experience and grows professionally, the relationship is likely to change into more of a peer relationship. Let it, Ensher says. “Like any other interpersonal relationship, it’s going to morph and, at times, it’s going to be really intense, and then at other times it might just gracefully transition,” she says. That’s an indicator that you’ve done a good job as a mentor.