I am a public school educator in a county that pairs thousands of first year educators with a mentor, each year. I was 33 years old, later than most, when I began my career as a middle school teacher and boy, let me tell you, that was the hardest year of my life. My mentors, the one assigned to me and the ones I found for myself, assisted me through that tough time– a practice I am sure translates across careers to any level and all types of work. I am currently enrolled in a mentor training course, exploring the ins and outs of mentorship. Now that it’s my turn to be someone’s mentor, I am constantly reflecting upon the various ways my own mentors established themselves as trusted advisors and ensured that I found my footing and my confidence during a challenging time. Pairing those reflections with the information garnered through my coursework, I’ve gathered five quick tips to become a great mentor. Don’t know what to think about mentorship in general? Start here, where I share the benefits of a mentor relationship.
Establish trust from the jump
Before even meeting your mentee, approach the people they work with and ask some questions or begin your relationship with a few email exchanges; nowadays many people are much more inclined to comfortably share information about themselves digitally than in person. If they go by another name, find out and use that name when you first meet. Don’t state their name like it’s a question, “Christiana Moore?,” instead approach that first meeting like you’ve known them for a while, “Oh Chrissy, it’s so nice to finally meet you.” Keep it casual and friendly, and always make eye contact with a smile.
Don’t underestimate the importance of body language. Wow, after typing that statement, I do realize I have just fully quoted Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid, she speaks truth so I’m rolling with it! Nonverbal communication is oftentimes a stronger expression of your interest than spoken word. If you have to, practice your body language. Don’t cross your arms when speaking with your mentee, lean in to show you’re interested in what they have to say. Keep your physical proximity close, sit next to them rather than across the table or desk when you meet. Practice your facial expressions and pay close attention to the tone of your voice. It’s important to establish an environment of open communication for the both of you, positive nonverbal communication will strongly (and quickly) establish that environment.
Lay some ground rules
When establishing trust, it is important that both parties are invested in the relationship. Take the time to create some ground rules together and make sure your mentee knows these rules apply to you, the mentor, as well. It’s important that both parties understand what is expected of them and what they will do for eachother. Again, this is a great way to establish a firm foundation of trust.
Rules can include items like speaking honestly about one’s thoughts and feeling, asking clarifying questions rather than making assumptions, straightforwardly stating needs and wants and respecting each other’s time. Create a schedule of meeting times (and types) together and give each other two floating “sick days.” If something comes up or if someone has an especially challenging day and would like some time to reflect before meeting they can use one of those days to reschedule the meeting with no questions asked. You want to make sure you and your mentee are in the right headspace during meetings, building some flexibility into the schedule shows your mentee that you respect and trust their judgement. Establish a timeline for email or phone call responses; responding within 24 hours is reasonable.
Finally make sure your mentee knows it is ok to disagree, as disagreements lead to discussions, and discussions lead to learning and open mindedness. Let it be known that this is a learning experience for the both of you. Mentors learn just as much, if not more, from their mentees and being open and honest will again lead to trust and a stronger relationship. My own personal rule (this one is echoed in my classroom as well), we MUST laugh at least once a meeting. As the mentor (and the teacher), I go out of my way to find jokes, songs, memes or break out into a soft shoe tap dance to make others smile. Maybe song and dance isn’t your style, that’s ok, but find something to help lighten and brighten your mentee’s day.
Set goals together
Now that you have established trust and some ground rules, continue your work together by setting goals. Sure, you’ve got a clipboard with a list of checkboxes to complete, but put that away for now! Most of those lists are general ideas that will be completed naturally over time, instead give your mentee a chance to steer this conversation. Begin by simply asking them, “What do you hope to accomplish?” Feel free to qualify the question with more details as befitting to your organization. Make sure your mentee knows all their answers don’t have to relate directly to the work environment. One of their goals might be to have 100% family only, work free Saturdays and that’s ok! With your guidance and their growing experience they will eventually reach that goal.
If your mentee has a hard time creating goals for themselves, then step in and facilitate the conversation with additional questions (possibly created from that list of checkboxes). Show them a list of goals from another mentee, better yet, show them the list of goals you have for yourself as a mentor and discuss how you came to establish that list. Verbalize your thinking process aloud for them and then give them time to verbalize their own ideas. Let them know these goals are fluid, they may shift over time as knowledge and experience changes.
Come prepared to offer resources
Create a tool box of resources before your first meeting. Have them ready to be pulled out or emailed in an instant. Your resources should always be within easy reach for both of you. I always tell my students that the smartest people in the world don’t know all the answers, they just know where to find those answers. Resources are key to your mentee’s success, they are empowering and help build confidence and independence.
Resources can range from items like HR forms and procedures, to visual instructions for clearing a jammed copier. They can be specifically role related and share step by step instructions for running a report, or show a detailed hierarchy of the organization’s chain of command. Walk them through how to create a web browser shortcut to the company’s phone and email directory. Lastly, introduce your mentee to subject matter experts in the office who could become additional resources. Invite these potential resources to one of your meetings and allow your mentee to network and freely ask questions. Empower your mentee to use their resources.
Get outta there! Your mentee is new to their position, it’s quite possible that new position has taken over their life. Give them a break! Take them out to lunch and simple enjoy each other’s company. Leave work in the office for 90 minutes. If your office does a happy hour, take them and help them network with others. Find out about their hobbies and interests and incorporate some of those items into your time together. If they love shoes, discuss their progress while you walk to the nearest shoe store and try on some shoes together. If they’re a sports fanatic make sure they sign up for the office fantasy football league, or ask them to organize something for the office. Being an ally and mentor extends beyond office roles and responsibilities and well into community and relationship building. If you both have a family or a pet, bring in some pictures to share. Find some way to connect with your mentee on a personal and social level and help them connect with others. Make sure to steer them away from the Negative Nellys and Bitter Bettys of the office, and instead introduce them to a few Positive Petes and Pattys.
Share your own stories with them. Be candid and honest, don’t be afraid to share your mistakes or missteps. Those stories go a long way to building trust and your mentee could learn a thing or two from your experiences. Take a moment to share the challenges and successes you are experiencing as well, this will help your mentee open up too! Share the spotlight, but always return the focus to your mentee and their needs, challenges and successes. Celebrate their successes and invite them to help celebrate your own.
There you have it folks, five ways to be a great mentor! While it’s important to find your own style of mentoring, I hope these five tips help you reflect upon the type of mentor you’d like to become. If you’d like to be a mentor for someone in your community, a quick web search will connect you with local organizations. If your company or organization does not have a mentoring program, approach a new staff member and check in with them periodically, or work to establish a mentoring program in your office. As someone who relied heavily on her mentors when she was new to the job, I’d like to send a big, HUGE thank you to the mentors of the world, you all do amazing work.
Did you catch our story on mentorship in the Winter 2017-18 print issue of Sass Magazine? If not, read it here!