How to be a mentor: all you need to get started

Exploring how to be a mentor in the workplace can be challenging. There’s plenty of misinformation about the role of a mentor and the differences between coaching and mentoring.  

This article lays it all out for you: the benefits of being a mentor, how to be a good mentor, mentoring vs coaching, the skills you need to cultivate, and how to find mentoring opportunities in the workplace.

Four benefits of being a mentor in the workplace

There are many benefits of being a mentor. Whenever I run a mentoring program, it’s always a surprise to the mentors how much they have benefitted too!

Based on the feedback I have received from mentors I’ve distilled down the benefits into four areas:

1. Encourages reflection and learning

This is perhaps the biggest benefit. You have experience to share. As you share it, you’ll be reflecting and learning for yourself. You’ll consolidate your understanding, discover fresh insights, clarify your perspective.

Mentoring is a great way for you to learn from your own experience.

2. Cultivates your communication skills

Your relationship with your mentee will give you the opportunity to focus on your own communication skills.

  • Are you listening effectively?
  • Are you able to build a relationship based on trust and mutual understanding?
  • Are you able to be a catalyst for action?

These are great challenges as you develop yourself as well as the mentee!

3. Builds your confidence as a leader

Leadership is no longer about ‘telling’ (if it ever was!). Leaders show people a better future, show them the path, and provide guidance and support. Because of this, there’s a strong connection between leadership and mentoring.

Also, as I’ve written previously, mentoring is one of the 5 hats that managers wear.

In short, mentoring is a great way to build your confidence as a manager and leader!

4. Provides an opportunity to give back

Finally, being a mentor provides the opportunity to give back. It’s rewarding to know that you’re helping someone make progress.

If you enjoy getting to know someone, sharing, learning together, and supporting their development, you have the potential to be a great mentor!

Mentoring Vs Coaching: similarities and differences

Here’s the short version:

  • Mentoring is helping someone develop by sharing your experience, knowledge, resources, and contacts. You have the answers, you’re sharing them with your mentee.
  • Coaching is helping someone develop by asking thought-provoking questions in a structured conversation. In the coaching moment, you must believe that the coachee has the answers.

This is the fundamental different between mentoring and coaching. Mentoring is sharing experience, coaching is a skill.

For more, look at coaching vs mentoring.

How to be a mentor

Be clear about the expertise you have to share

The benefits of reflection start here. What experience, expertise, knowledge, and contacts do you have to share? Here are some areas to consider:

  • People management / leadership skills
  • Communication / interpersonal skills
  • Change management skills
  • Navigating / planning a career
  • Balancing work and family
  • Product knowledge
  • Technical skills
  • Sales skills
  • Industry knowledge
  • Company / strategy knowledge

This list is not exhaustive. The challenge is to structure and define your value as a mentor, so that you can communicate it clearly.

Make sure you’re a good match to the mentee

Once you have structured and defined the value you have to offer as a mentor, it’s much easier to recognize when there is an opportunity of a good match with a mentor.

In truth, there’s no such thing as how to be a good mentor in the abstract. There’s only how to be a mentor to a specific individual, your potential mentee. Do you have the experience and expertise that will support their development needs?

Show up, be interested to help

To be a good mentor, you must want to help. It requires a commitment of time and energy, it helps if you can see the benefits for yourself too.

In the mentoring programs that I run the mentor / mentee matches will typically meet bi-weekly for an hour. So, it’s not a huge commitment. But you must be committed to making yourself available.

Once you have an agreed schedule it should be a priority, only cancelled rarely and if absolutely necessary.

Cultivate a confidential and trusting relationship

Look your mentee in the eye, tell them that everything discussed will be confidential. Mean it. It’s no more complicated than that.

Share your expertise, knowledge, resources, and contacts

This is the heart of how to be a mentor, you share your expertise, knowledge, resources, and contacts. If you’ve done all the above, it should not be difficult.

At the start of the relationship, discuss the scope of what will be covered. Prompt your mentee to always be clear what they want from the discussions.

Start each discussion with two questions:

  • What progress have you made since we last met?
  • What do you want to get out of this conversation?

Finish every conversation with:

  • What are you planning on doing before we meet again?

This is a simple way of holding your mentee to account and encouraging them to take action between your conversations.

Be open and honest if it doesn’t seem to be working

Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Because, fundamentally, it’s a relationship. A one-to-one relationship between two people. We hope it will be productive and beneficial for both, but sometimes it just isn’t.

If you feel it’s not working, be open and honest. Ask your mentee how they feel. If it’s time to part ways, be an adult. Thank your mentee for their time, take any last actions that might be of help to them, part ways.

The skills of a good mentor

You can probably see already, from the points raised above, communication skills are also essential to your mentoring role.

Ask great questions

You’re there to share your expertise, but you can also provoke your mentee with great questions. Take a look at this career conversations guide for some examples of questions you can ask.

As much as possible, keep questions big, open, and neutral. For example, ask “what are your hopes and ambitions?” rather than “do you want to work in IT?”.

Listen without an agenda

The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves. Steven Spielberg

You provide advice and guidance. Your mentee must decide whether to accept and own that advice. Don’t try to create a mini-me, help your mentee explore their own path.

Communicate with enthusiasm

Bring energy and enthusiasm to the conversations. Tell stories, share anecdotes, enjoy yourself.

Six great ways to find mentoring opportunities

Here are 6 of the best ways to find mentoring opportunities:

Contact your HR team

There may already be a mentoring program within your company. Contact your HR team and let them know that you’re interested. If there’s no program in place, it may prompt them to start a program, or at least keep you in mind when they see specific mentoring needs.

Let your peers know you’re interested in being a mentor

If you’re in a management role, then let your peers know you’re interested in being a mentor. Your fellow managers should be working with their team members on their development plans. If they know you’re interested in becoming a mentor they can look out for opportunities to make connections.

Talk with your manager

If you’re interested in how to be a mentor, talk to your manager too. They may have experience that they can share with you. Also, there may be opportunities for you to informally mentor new members of your team, which is a great way to get started as a mentor.

Cultivate informal mentoring opportunities

If someone comes to you for advice, share your thoughts. Then offer to have a quick coffee catch up to discuss further. (Or a virtual catch up if needed). If that works well, let them know you’d be happy to catch up regularly. Cultivating these informal mentoring opportunities is another great way to get started as a mentor. 

Approach industry bodies

Some industry bodies will run mentoring programs. This will take you outside of your organization and give you the opportunity to expand your network too. If you have a relevant industry body, contact them, and let them know you’re available as a mentor.

Find mentees online

Finally, (and inevitably!) you can find mentoring opportunities online. There are plenty of opportunities, just Google ‘how to be a mentor’. However, please note, many of these online programs are not work related.

Take a look at this become a mentor page, on mentoring.org. It’s not directly work-related but is still a useful source of insight, and it may prompt you to consider mentoring outside of the workplace.

How to be a mentor in the workplace, in summary

Being a mentor has many benefits. It:

  1. Encourages your own reflection and learning
  2. Cultivates your communication skills
  3. Builds your confidence as a leader
  4. Provides an opportunity to give back

Knowing how to be a mentor involves:

  • Being clear about the expertise you have to share
  • Making sure you’re a good match to the mentee
  • Showing up, being interested to help
  • Cultivating a confidential and trusting relationship
  • Sharing your expertise, knowledge, resources, and contacts
  • Being open and honest if it doesn’t seem to be working

Finally, listen without an agenda, ask great questions, and communicate with enthusiasm!

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