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Mentoring is worth your time. Here’s how you can be great at it.

Mentoring might seem like a one-way relationship, but if done the right way, mentors can also reap the benefits.

Mentoring is worth your time. Here’s how you can be great at it.
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

Your schedule is full. You’re running around frantically, and you can’t find time to do it all. But there’s one more thing you can add to your plate to feel more fulfilled and more effective: mentoring.

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It may seem counter-intuitive, but being a mentor can add to your sense of capacity. Why? Because we tend to perceive that we have more time when we’re making meaningful contributions. Mentoring pays dividends in this and many ways. But how do you do it well and make it matter most for you and others? The answers may surprise you.

Mentoring comes in many different forms

First, it’s crucial to know that mentoring comes in many varieties. As London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra wrote in Harvard Business Review, a connector or strategizer offers advice, coaching or suggestions for getting ahead in a more private relationship. A sponsor or advocate makes introductions and goes to bat for those they coach in more public forums.

Any of these relationships are suitable for the mentee. It’s also beneficial for the mentor because of the connection, belonging and meaning that the relationship inspires. Of course, there are significant differences between great mentors and those that are merely average. Here are some tips on how you can be an effective mentor.

1. Mentor in groups

Most of us think of a mentoring relationship as a one-to-one experience, but mentoring can work well in small group settings. Having one mentor meet with two or three mentees is especially helpful when relationships are new—a group setting removes the pressure to have long-form meaningful conversations from the start. The small group dynamic can keep the conversation flowing and offer multiple perspectives, which is useful for everyone’s learning.

Just one caveat—as much as possible, be sure that a small group mentoring opportunity doesn’t include people who are in the same department or similar roles. If people have a distance across an organization (or are from different organizations altogether), they’re less likely to be competitive (and more likely to be collaborative) toward each other.

2. Mentor for set periods of time

Often, mentoring relationships don’t have set endpoints. A better approach is to establish a timeframe of perhaps 6 to 12 months. Having a set time period removes the pressure to continue the relationship beyond the point when it serves both people. At the end of a pre-determined period, check in and decide—in a formal way— whether you’d like the relationship to continue or not. There is no shame in finishing a mentor relationship. When you have multiple mentors and protégées, you can create continued learning experiences on all sides.

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3. Make the interaction more systematic

There’s an expectation that most mentor relationships will be organic, with conversations magically flowing when the mentor and mentee get together. But it can actually be especially useful to have a topic of focus for each meeting or to have each person bring an article or thought-starter to each session. This kind of planning and intentionality can make the discussions richer and more substantive. It can also prevent the conversation from going in the same direction over and over.

4. Seek diversity

Some of the most powerful mentoring relationships are when people who wouldn’t regularly interact have the opportunity to do so. Seek to coach people who are outside of your usual circle, and provide perspectives that introduce diversity of thought for both of you.

5. Maintain boundaries

Mentoring can be very rewarding, but you need to set and keep boundaries. Decide how much you want to share, and how much time you want to spend, and ensure you’re not going beyond your areas of comfort. In general, more openness is better. But to be the best mentor, you also need to maintain your own boundaries and model this kind of work-life harmony for others.

6. Do it for yourself

Mentoring is good for not only the people you mentor, but it is also undoubtedly good for you. Don’t be shy about the benefits you’re getting and use the relationship to learn from the person you’re coaching. Setting up a clear expectation for plenty of two-way learning sends the message you value the other person and provides a terrific opportunity for your own development.

7. Energize and build trust

This might seem like an obvious recommendation. But fascinating new research from the Connected Commons suggests that you build trust when people feel energized by their mentor. This occurs when mentors support (and inspire) in the direction of the protégées’ purpose and encourage them to pursue the vision that they have for their career.

Mentoring is a powerful opportunity to make an impact. But to be the most effective mentor (and to get the benefit yourself), avoid mentoring in the traditional way. Consider following the tips above. It’s these kinds of activities that will bode best for success as a mentor—and make it worth your time.

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Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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