• Dain Johnson

Being a Mentor


Mentors are in demand. High-performing professionals find that having mentors increases their level of influence, motivates them to take on new challenges, and generally helps them achieve goals faster. Being a mentor is also intrinsically rewarding and may be the next step of your own mastery journey.


Mentoring is no longer reserved for younger people as they develop their careers in a single organization, nor are formal mentorship programs the best option. Times have changed. Reverse mentoring is becoming more common, and informal mentoring relationships that are independently initiated are more impactful than those facilitated by corporate HR.


Mentorships are increasingly transitory, non-traditional, and more narrowly focused. Those who understand the value of mentorship will often have multiple mentors and even include people much younger than themselves among their board of mentors.


If given the opportunity to mentor, how can you do it well? If you've had a great mentor in your life, you know it’s about so much more than giving advice and sharing your story. At its core, mentoring is about encouraging others to grow.


As you reach higher levels of professional proficiency, social respect, or personal success, people may seek you out as a mentor. This article can help you be prepared to engage meaningfully in that relationship.

 

Mentorship is a unique relationship. In contrast to the role of a friend, which is often to sympathize, or that of a coach, which is often to challenge, the role of a mentor is to encourage.


Each type of relationship naturally has different expectations. Mentorship is no different. That's not to say a friend can't challenge or a mentor can't sympathize; it’s just that the dynamic is different.


To serve well as a mentor, you must:

  1. Keep the focus on them.

  2. Uncover who they want to be.

  3. Encourage them as they try.


1) Keep the focus on them

Mentorship (especially the informal kind) likely starts from admiration. Someone may admire a strength or ability of yours they aspire to have, like public speaking or technical ability, or they admire what you’ve accomplished in your career. Either way, it's essential to recognize that they want to grow themselves, not mimic you.


Your story is powerful and important; use it in mentoring but avoid the temptation to chronicle your journey as if it should be theirs because your path may not be relevant to their growth.


Resist the urge to answer questions at face value if you sense a deeper or underlying motivation. Mentorships start when someone asks you about yourself, like, "How did you get good at managing up?" or “What did you do to become VP of Engineering?"


These are flattering questions, but if you get caught up in answering the question, you'll lose the opportunity to mentor well. Remember, it's not about you!


Here's how to deflect, reset, and make it about their growth - why they approached you in the first place. Respond with a question of your own. Something like:

  • "I wasn't always good at managing up. I'm still working on it, but I'm curious: why do you ask?"

  • "Mine was an interesting road. Do you aspire to something similar?"


Now that you’ve opened the door, the conversation can get good! They might share an insecurity or an aspiration, allowing you to mentor them well by next uncovering their aspirations and encouraging them.


2) Uncover who they want to be

There is a great irony in change management: almost everyone wants change and to change, but no one wants to be told to change or how they should change.


Most people expect business leaders to grow and improve the business, and they expect to have opportunities to grow their own careers and learn new things. People tend to accept those changes willingly. But when a change someone isn’t interested in is forced upon them, they can become resistant. In mentoring, you must uncover the change that the mentee desires. Unfortunately, what that change is may not be apparent to them yet.


Some people are highly motivated to change, while others may be skeptical, ambivalent, or resistant. The beauty of mentorship is that it’s a one-on-one relationship tailored to the mentee. As a mentor, you can encourage them to try something new or to see beyond their ambivalence.


In behavioral psychology, there is an important distinction between the change someone wants and the change someone needs. If someone wants a specific change, they are more likely to take the actions necessary. As a mentor, you must uncover the changes they want and provide guidance on what actions to take.


A supervisor or a coach is better suited to dictate the changes someone needs to make – either performance improvements or new ways of working. But as a mentor, don’t go there. If you do, you may not have many opportunities to mentor again because people won’t like feeling as if you are molding them to be like you.


A simple way to uncover the change a mentee wants is to follow your curiosity. Ask - "why" repeatedly and in different ways until you feel you’ve uncovered it. For example:

  • "Why do you want mentoring?"

  • "Why do you want to be in that position?"

  • "Why is that important to you?"

  • "Success is unique to each person. Why is that the path or outcome you're focused on?"

A mentor doesn’t need to judge a mentee’s motivation; just understand it. Once you've uncovered who they want to be and the path they want to take, you can take it further and do what a mentor is really there to do: encourage them as they try.


3) Encourage them as they try

Effective mentors provide timely encouragement that is grounded in a mentee’s aspirations.


Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than negative, though both can bring about behavioral change. As BJ Fogg notes in Tiny Habits, “people change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.” Positive reinforcement does not mean incentives. This isn't about carrots or sticks because, as a mentor, you have neither. Rather, it’s about catching them doing the right things and providing encouragement.


Encouragement can come in two ways:

  • When they try something hard, help them reflect on their growth.

  • When they avoid something difficult, encourage them to try (and try again).

This reinforces good behaviors because encouragement is a reward, and rewards engrain new behaviors.

 

Mentorship is a lopsided yet mutually beneficial relationship. If you follow the tenants of effective behavioral change - uncover who they want to be and encourage them as they try - you can build a meaningful relationship while making a positive difference in someone’s life.

 

Resources and Sources

Your Career Needs Many Mentors, Not Just One by Dorie Clark


Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg

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