What Is a Mentor?
Although most people will have heard of mentorship programs, many people will think it’s something out of reach for them.
There’s a misconception that mentoring can only take place in global conglomerates, or for large organizations with big budgets and a dedicated HR team responsible for learning and development programs.
But the truth is that mentoring is far more accessible than you may think, and it can often be found in smaller firms.
At its heart, mentoring is about building a relationship between two people (mentor and mentee) where you can learn from one another. As a mentee, you will have someone who is there to push you and hold you accountable to your ambitions.
Mentorships can either be formal learning partnerships or relaxed relationships between two co-workers. Whatever the scenario, mentoring has the power to help you build your confidence, learn new skills and boost your career development.
With this in mind, we’re helping you understand what a mentor can do and how they can assist you personally and professionally.
The official definition of a mentor (according to dictionary.com) is ‘a wise and trusted counselor or teacher’ or ‘an influential senior sponsor or supporter’.
As you can see from the definition, a mentor is someone you can trust to guide you, help you learn or understand how to tackle a specific project or problem, and help keep you accountable for your decisions.
They can be used to build your confidence, give you new ways of thinking and help you to be the best that you can be.
Mentoring is proven to be an effective way of helping you improve your capabilities. Plenty of well-known people have benefited from mentoring partnerships.
From Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, being mentored by Apple legend, Steve Jobs, through to cinematic legend Steven Spielberg mentoring JJ Abrams, there are numerous examples of famous mentoring partnerships.
Another common misconception about mentoring is that it’s the same as workplace coaching. In truth, although coaching and mentoring share similarities, there are also broad differences.
A mentor will often be a long-lasting relationship that can span years or even decades.
You may not meet with your mentor regularly, or your mentor may even work in a completely different sector. However, that person will be someone you can talk to and who can provide a unique perspective regardless of where you are in your career.
Mentors often work in a voluntary capacity. They’ll use their own insights and personal experience to impart wisdom and share their knowledge, rather than having any formal qualifications.
In contrast, a career coach is often someone who will work with you on a specific project, or within a specific timeframe. There’s usually a clear endpoint in sight and the career coach will have specific training to help you to work on your immediate strengths and weaknesses.
As a paid employee, a career coach will only look at the here and now and will often be used to improve your performance on behalf of your employer.
Mentorship programs are about having a relationship with a peer (usually someone senior) which is based on mutual trust and respect.
For the mentor, it’s an opportunity to share your knowledge and teach younger colleagues what they need to do to progress in their careers. For those aspiring to move into senior management positions, acting as a mentor can demonstrate your leadership skills.
For the mentee, it’s having someone to guide you, learn new ways of working, expand your thought processes and improve your skills. Effective mentorship will help you to develop your career far quicker than those without that personal one-to-one support.
The crux of a successful mentorship is the partnership that develops between mentor and mentee. Therefore, you must find the right person to be your mentor.
To find the right mentor for you, it’s important to think about what you want your mentorship to achieve. You need to find someone who knows you well, who can accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses and will advocate for you to achieve your dreams.
Your first thought may be to choose your direct line manager – after all, they are senior to you and have a vested interest in helping you to improve your work.
However, if you’re looking for someone who will encourage you to achieve your ambitions and hold you accountable to your dreams, your line manager may not be the best person. After all, they’ll be unlikely to encourage you to apply for a promotion in a different company.
Similarly, it’s not about asking a stranger to act as your mentor, even if they are somebody whom you admire professionally.
Most mentor relationships will happen organically. It will likely be someone you admire professionally and have a personal connection with. They will be someone who knows how you think, how you act and what you want to achieve in your career, and they will have a personal interest in helping you to succeed.
The next question to ask yourself is whether your mentorship should be formally recognized or work on a more informal basis.
Some larger corporations may choose to create formal mentoring schemes, whereby senior staff take responsibility for guiding junior colleagues.
Similarly, professional membership organizations may implement mentoring schemes as part of continuing professional development initiatives.
Such a program can be effective because it ensures that your organization guarantees that time is set aside during the working day for mentoring conversations and work shadowing to take place. You may be given set targets to achieve and homework/assignments to show your continual progression.
An additional benefit of formal mentoring schemes is that you have a guarantee that your mentorship is taken seriously. Notes may be kept to track and maintain your progress, which can be used as a valid part of any learning and development plan.
However, informal mentoring can be just as effective. This is where you find a personal relationship with a colleague and establish your own routine – whether it’s simply having a regular meeting to discuss your current working situation over a cup of coffee or meeting once or twice a year at most.
Your mentoring will be far less structured, but it will be a partnership based on mutual respect and appreciation.
There are many reasons why a senior figure may choose to act as a mentor for an individual.
Making the most of professional network/membership groups – If you are part of a sector or a professional group, this can be a chance for you to make use of your membership and build contacts with people beyond your organization.
Professional fulfillment – Many senior staff members appreciate being able to impart wisdom to junior staff members. It’s an opportunity for self-reflection and can be professionally rewarding.
Develop leadership and coaching skills – Acting as a mentor can help you to progress your career. If you want to move into leadership roles, your role as a mentor can provide you with examples of moments where you have motivated and inspired others. Similarly, if you plan to move into a coaching or consultancy role, working as a mentor can provide excellent experience.
It allows you to learn from others – Even though you are the senior person in the partnership, you can still learn from what your mentee tells you. It’s important to always listen to new ideas and establish new ways of working, and the mentoring partnership could provide you with insights and suggestions that you may have been otherwise unaware of.
It can improve your confidence and reinvigorate you professionally – Acting as a mentor can be an ego boost to senior figures, especially those who may be feeling ‘stuck in a rut’. Having the ability to see how a person changes their working styles as a direct result of your relationship can give you a confidence boost and remind you that you are good at what you do.
With these benefits in mind, here are some practical tips that can help you to be the most effective mentor you can be:
Find a willing mentee whom you believe in – We’ve already looked at the need to have a strong personal connection between you and your mentee. You can only be effective as a mentor if you believe in the person whom you are mentoring. You need to have confidence that you can help them to improve their transferable skills and capabilities, otherwise, you may be wasting your own time.
Remember who the relationship is about – It can be tempting to use the mentoring sessions to reminisce about moments in your career when you succeeded. But great mentors remember to keep the sessions focused on what they can do for their mentee. It’s about remembering how you can help them to succeed, finding out what they want to achieve and helping them to identify ways to improve.
Set goals – Whether you are working as part of a formal or informal mentoring partnership, you should set some career goals and targets for your mentee. Finding a way to monitor their progress is a great way of establishing how effective your mentorship is.
Share failures as well as successes – Part of mentoring is about giving the other person confidence. As well as being able to talk about moments in your career when you succeeded, you should also share details of when you failed. This will help the other person to learn about how they can overcome failures and learn how to move on and overcome difficult situations. Ultimately, it’s about helping your mentee to become a well-rounded employee.
Be approachable and available – Once you have agreed to be a mentor, you need to be available to that person. They need to feel comfortable that they can contact you with a problem and that you’ll be there to help them overcome their issues. This could be through setting regular dates in the diary for face-to-face meetings or it could be through letting them know that you’re available by phone or email.
Be honest about their strengths and weaknesses – You can only help your mentee to improve if you are up-front about their strengths and weaknesses. This means you need to understand how to phrase constructive criticism. It’s about helping that person to understand how they can utilize their strengths and providing practical suggestions to help your mentee overcome their weaknesses.
There are many reasons why someone may consider having a mentor. Here are a few common benefits:
Boost for your confidence, personally and professionally – One of the most common benefits of being a mentee is that your mentor will help you to boost your confidence. The one-to-one relationship will help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses and provide you with a formal action plan for how you can improve your performance. This can help you personally as well as professionally as you will become more assured and self-confident, giving you more progression opportunities.
Someone to talk to about your career development – A mentor will hold you accountable for your career development. If you are honest with your mentor about what you want to achieve, they can provide you with the tools to ensure those ambitions come true. This could be as simple as having someone ask you how you plan to proceed in your career, or it could be having a mentor help you prepare for a job interview or provide suggestions on ways to upskill yourself.
Improve your communication skills – Your mentor will assist you in being able to clarify exactly what you want to achieve and how. This will not only help you personally but if you are working as part of a team, your improved communication skills could enhance teamwork and produce greater results.
Build your professional network – If you are participating in a mentorship program courtesy of your professional membership group, you will build personal connections with peers from other companies.
New insights into working styles/approaches – Your mentor will probably be able to share a wealth of knowledge of how different people work and how to get the most out of different approaches. This could change your approach to work or help you to get more out of your colleagues if you are working as part of a team.
Knowledge of how your company approaches career progression – If you and your mentor work for the same organization and you are participating in a corporate HR initiative, you will benefit from improving your understanding of how your employer approaches career progression. You’ll be given insights into what you need to do to enhance your career and learn more about what your specific employer is looking for from you.
If you have been allocated a mentor or you have asked a respected colleague to act as your mentor, here is some practical advice to help you make the most out of the relationship:
It can take time to build a rapport – Mentoring is all about long-term relationships. You may think that, on paper, you have the ideal person to help mentor you, but you also need a chemistry between the two of you. This may take time to develop, or it could be that your allocated mentor is the wrong person for you. Earlier in this article, we explained how to find a mentor, but you should also be prepared to listen to your gut instinct.
Be honest – Don’t be afraid to share your concerns about your strengths and weaknesses. Mentoring will only work if you are being completely honest with your mentor. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. Instead, use mentoring as an opportunity to conduct self-reflection and consider what you want to achieve from your career.
Don’t expect the mentor to do the work for you – Whilst your mentor is there to be a sounding board, they are not there to do the work for you. If you’re working with your mentor to enhance your job prospects and you have been set a target of applying for a more senior position, you need to spend time researching job opportunities, reaching out to recruiters, writing speculative cover letters, crafting your resume and preparing for a job interview. It’s not the mentor’s responsibility to do this for you. They’ll be there to help offer independent advice and boost your self-confidence.
Research your mentor’s advice before applying their guidance – It’s important to remember that your mentor is human and may make mistakes. If your mentor provides specific advice, it’s important to do your research before you act on it, to check if what they are saying is correct.
Don’t abuse the mentor relationship – If you have built a personal connection with a mentor from within your organization, it’s important to retain professional boundaries. Sometimes internal conflicts can arise, and you should remember that just because someone is your mentor, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically take your side, especially if the conflict becomes an HR issue. To be a good mentee, you should not expect support from your mentor during internal conflicts.
Show that you value your mentor's support – A final tip is to show support to your mentor by recognizing that they are investing their own time and interests in you and your career. You should acknowledge that they are helping you, find a way to show your appreciation and thank them regularly – especially if it is a voluntary role spanning several years.
We’ve now seen what it means to be a professional mentor and the benefits to both the mentor and the mentee, but what about your employer? Are there corporate benefits for firms choosing to implement internal mentoring programs?
Here are a few business benefits of implementing extensive mentoring schemes:
Identify future leaders – Through your mentoring scheme, your business can easily identify those with future leadership skills. This is not only good for the business itself, but it can help to retain and motivate staff, as well as attract new recruits.
Show commitment to staff progression and learning/development – Millennial workforces want to work for firms that are committed to helping them to improve their learning. These workers are seeking professional satisfaction and they are actively looking for employers who will help them to upskill. From a recruitment perspective, the implementation of mentoring schemes could easily provide a tangible return on investment.
Maintain business growth and improve internal communications – Through mentoring schemes between senior/junior employees, you can transfer information so that there is seamless business growth. The senior members can share their knowledge and understanding of the business whilst the junior colleagues can offer new ideas and find solutions that align with business goals. This approach is beneficial for businesses with horizontal line management as it means that teams will be working towards one clear goal and internal communication will be improved.
Improve diversity and ensure that glass ceilings are broken – A huge benefit of corporate mentoring schemes is that they can be an effective way of improving diversity within your organization. By inviting people from all departments, of any age, race, gender, sexuality, religion or ethnicity, to apply to have a mentor, you can ensure that your business is wholly inclusive and listening to staff from all walks of life.
Mentoring can be incredibly effective for individuals as well as businesses. It can make a big difference to those looking to advance their careers. However, it is built on mutual trust and respect, and mentoring can only work if both parties are prepared to put in the work and communicate effectively.
If your company runs a mentoring scheme, you may wish to speak to your HR team about how you can get involved. Mentoring should be easily accessible to all, regardless of seniority within your company. If your company doesn’t have a formal program, you should also look to professional networks or ask a colleague to act as a mentor outside of the work environment.
It’s important to remember that your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to work in the same business or even the same sector as you. Sometimes, having a mentor in an entirely different profession can be hugely beneficial because they are a truly independent sounding board and can offer a different perspective.
Ultimately, mentoring is a scenario where you can only benefit if you are prepared to listen and take on board feedback and suggestions. But when it’s managed correctly, it can be one of the most beneficial things you can get involved in.