Effective mentoring is a powerful thing, but not all mentoring works the way it should. Some pairings simply never get off the ground while others go wrong over time. The reasons vary widely, but the two main culprits are a lack of shared values and a lack of commitment by one or both parties.
When mentoring relationships fail it’s discouraging for everyone involved, but I think it takes the greatest toll on a committed mentor. Once you’ve made the decision to share your time and experience for the betterment of someone else, it’s hard to see that effort wasted. Most people who take on the training of a younger person do so with the best of intentions, but, unfortunately, good intentions don’t make you a great mentor. I’ve been passionate about mentoring for many years, and I’m still learning and improving.
Mentoring is not an exact science, and it takes two partners to make it work. From the mentor side of the relationship, there are steps you can take to improve yourself, strengthen your next mentoring relationship, and give it the best chance of success.
1. Listen More than You Speak
Most people who are drawn to mentoring have valuable experience and insight to share. But before you can effectively speak into someone’s life, you must understand who she is and where she is coming from. If you rush to provide an assessment of the situation and share your experiences, you will miss out on truly knowing your mentee. Even worse, you will send the message that you don’t care to know her. Your good advice will come across as an impersonal lecture and will likely fall on deaf ears.
Approach the mentoring relationship with openness and humility, asking lots of questions and listening closely to the answers. Let James 3:17 be your guide: “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.”
Remember, your valuable experiences and insights are God-given, to be used for God’s glory, and God has a unique and inspired plan for the life of your mentee. By listening first you not only honor God’s work in your mentee but also provide a powerful example of humility and service to the next generation of leaders.
2. Provide Options, Not Answers
Do you like when people come to you for advice? I’ll admit I do. There’s something flattering about it—intoxicating even. And when someone asks for your guidance, you feel that you must come through with the best advice you can. This person has come to you for answers, and it’s natural to want to provide them.
Often, however, your mentee is not best served by answers. The most effective mentors guide rather than direct their mentees. Don’t assume your mentee will want to do exactly what you would in any given situation. While it is possible your mentee is facing a decision where there really is only one right answer, such as one involving a clear-cut question of moral integrity, most likely the questions you tackle with your mentee will involve multiple good options.
If you persistently tell your mentee what to do, you risk alienating her or worse, making her dependent on you. It’s your job to help guide your mentee through the decision-making process in a way that brings them confidence. Teach her how to make decisions by laying out options, offering multiple perspectives, and talking through any potential consequences or pitfalls you see.
You don’t have to pretend to be totally impartial. Just don’t become a source for easy answers, and don’t take it personally if your mentee makes a choice you wouldn’t have.
3. Expect Your Mentee to Lead, and Say So
You might assume it would be the mentor who most often misses or reschedules meetings, but according to the Drucker Institute, mentees are usually the ones who are flaky about meeting times and objectives. They’ve read or heard about mentoring and how important it is for their career, but they don’t have a full understanding of the commitment required.
Looking back on my life and career, I see clearly how crucial good mentoring has been for me. Sometimes I have forgotten that young people don’t have the benefit of this perspective. They are busy, often stressed, and they might not be ready to invest in a serious mentoring process. Without clear expectations, both parties are likely to end up frustrated. Make it clear from the beginning that the mentee must own and drive the mentoring process.
When meeting with a new mentee for the first time, I say something along these lines: “I see so much potential in you, and I’m excited to work with you, but I want you to know I can’t do the work for you. You need to be the driver of this relationship because you’re the one who will live with the results of it. That means I expect you to plan the meeting times, and let me know ahead of time what you want to work on.”
This sends clear messages to the mentee about what a mentoring relationship requires, and it helps them align their expectations with your own.
It’s worth getting right. When mentoring works, true magic happens for both parties, but it doesn’t always come easily. If you’ve agreed to mentor someone, thank you! I applaud you and appreciate you for the gift you are offering. Do everything you can to ensure your gift is well received.