How to be a good mentor

by Sylvie Edwards
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In recent years PMI has published statistics indicating that at the current rate, the number of seasoned project managers will dwindle drastically in coming years; leaving the profession looking for replacement PMs with great urgency. One of the best ways to ensure that we groom recruits now for the future is by ensuring that we have a plan in place to “produce” them. This plan is known as mentoring. Any great leader understands the need to have a mentoring program to support the organization’s need for a steady PM stream of prepared participants. We will look at the mentoring process and how to make the most out of it.

Lets first begin with a definition of mentoring: Mentoring is described as a medium to long-term professional relationship between two individuals in which a person with more experience (the mentor) voluntarily shares knowledge, insights, and wisdom with a less-experienced person (a mentee) who wishes to learn a set of skills or trade. The relationship is based on respect, honesty, trust, and mutual goals. 

The concept of mentoring has been around since the early Greek writings of Homer and the Odyssey, where the author introduced a character named mentor who was to take under his wing the son of the king. From that point on, it re-appears on and off in different texts and areas of the world. Over time, mentoring has become synonymous with the idea of apprenticeship, as a way of developing an employee’s personal and professional skills. After World War II, it became synonymous with the means of achieving a higher level in an organization and was very much a practice integrated into succession planning.

Before we go further into looking at how to put an effective mentoring process in place, let’s clarify the difference between mentoring and coaching. They are often used interchangeably, but there are some clear differences.

Mentoring is about:

  • Developing a longer-term relationship.
  • Playing a leadership role.
  • Focusing on the mentee’s overall career goals and aspirations.
  • Mentors challenging the mentee and introducing them to different perspectives on issues or personal challenges.
  • Building a mutually beneficial relationship between the mentor and mentee.
  • Mentors taking on many roles such as (but not limited to) teacher, motivator, guide, counselor, sponsor, coach, and role model.

Coaching is about:

  • Shorter-term relationships usually set around the timeline of acquiring a skill or developing a behavior
  • Coaching is a part of mentoring
  • Focusing on the development of the one skill or trait
  • The coachee benefiting from the coach’s expertise
  • The coaching observing, providing feedback, and modifying the coachee’s  behavior

A mentor needs to be flexible and knowledgeable for a mentee to entrust their learning journey to them. Apart from these two attributes, a mentor should also possess certain skills that will help in supporting a strong relationship with his/her mentee, such as:

  • Being an active listener
  • Trust building
  • Ability to set and determine appropriate goals for several situations
  • Building knowledge through a variety of forms
  • Encouraging, motivating, and inspiring

Mentoring can be seen as the building of relationships and networking with individuals providing the means of growth and development. Like any practice, it is best if it is built around some sort of model and has best practices associated with it. 

Here are some steps involved in the mentoring process:

  1. Pairing and establishing expectations during the first meeting or discussion. A lot of mentoring partnerships are done through work or associations where there might be a formal pairing process that looks at the commonality between individuals. If this is not the case and the pairing is already decided, the first meeting is key to setting expectations and laying down some ground rules.
  2. Creating an action plan. Through discussion, it is important as early as possible to document goals to be achieved and methods of doing so through the mentoring process. The key here is to remain logical about this relationship. This is only part of what individuals have going on. So, start slow with one goal and revisit and build as you go.
  3. Meeting consistently to update and revise the plan as it progresses. After the goals are set, deadlines and milestones need to be set to establish the plan. Throughout this time, you do not leave the mentee on his/her own, you meet or have touchpoint calls to ensure that you can answer questions and be a good bouncing board.
  4. Reflect periodically. A timeframe needs to be set to determine the next steps. After progress has been made and some time has passed, it is important to establish an understanding of how to carry out the relationship going forward. Maybe, after achieving a huge milestone, there is no need to meet for some time, or maybe tackle another one right away. This is up to the pair to decide.

As part of the above process, it is recommended that the mentor and mentee draft and sign some form of mentorship agreement in which they explain the extent of the relationship as well as boundaries and rules of conduct. This helps ensure confidentiality and proper etiquette from both participants.

There are several best practices to ensure that one is aware of before entering into a mentoring relationship, such as:

  • Your role is to facilitate the mentee’s learning process, you are not the only person with all the answers. Your job is to help the mentee find people and other credible resources that can fill in any gaps in your experience or wisdom on the topic.  
  • “Emphasize questions over advice-giving. Use probes that help your mentee think more broadly and deeply, help them see the big picture.” 
  • Share your experiences, past lessons learned, or advice when requested, but make sure you inform your mentee that your experiences may differ from theirs. 
  • Let your mentee come to conclusions or solve problems on their own as much as possible.
  • Try not to control the relationship and influence its outcomes; the mentee is responsible for their learning process and growth.  
  • Help your mentee see alternative interpretations and approaches.
  • Provide supportive and constructive feedback rather than criticism to foster their confidence. 
  • Help the mentee accomplish their goals by providing encouragement and inspiration. 
  • Challenge your mentee and help them think of strategies they used in the past to overcome challenges to help with future challenges. 
  • Do more than the bare minimum, call or e-mail your mentee spontaneously with words of encouragement or new information. 
  • Ask for feedback on your performance as a mentor, so you can improve in the future. 
  • Being a mentor is a privilege and a two-way street. Your role as a mentor will impact both your mentee’s development and your own, so enjoy the process. 

Mentoring relationships, if built on a good foundation of trust, can last for years and be very rewarding for not only the mentee but also the mentor. In such a relationship, both parties end up learning and developing from one another’s contributions. I personally have a mentee with whom I have been in touch for the last ten years and who I now call a friend.

If asked to mentor, give it a try. You don’t have to take it on forever, and you will soon see if it is for you or not. Chances are, it will provide you great satisfaction and your own opportunity to grow in the process.

 

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