Most of us can point to an influential person (or maybe several people) who has helped shape who we are today. These mentors have worked behind the scenes with us, generously sharing their time, expertise, and insights to nurture our potential, keep us on track, and help us grow — often personally and professionally.
“Mentors are wisdom keepers,” says Rabbi Victor Gross, codirector with his wife, Rabbi Nadya Gross, of the ALEPH Sage-ing Mentorship, a spiritual mentoring program in Boulder, Colo. “What is wisdom? It’s the combination of knowledge and experience.”
A time-honored practice, mentoring is a fixture in schools and universities, workplaces, and religious communities, as well as in youth-development programs. Mentoring relationships sometimes form organically and informally, though they’re often part of a structured program. And though we tend to think of mentoring as a relationship in which an older, more experienced person passes down his or her wisdom to someone younger, it can take many forms, including peer-to-peer mentoring and reverse mentoring, in which a younger person acts as a guide to an elder.
Several studies, including a meta-analysis of mentoring research in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, have identified a variety of positive outcomes for mentees, including motivational, attitudinal, career, and health benefits. But mentees aren’t the only ones who win.
“It’s a wonderful feeling that you get from being a successful mentor,” says Victor Gross. “It’s a kind of love for the other, and it can fill your life with additional purpose. Mentoring can help make someone feel needed, significant, and enjoyed.”
If you’re ready to share your wisdom and help someone else discover his or her full potential, mentoring may be your opportunity. The following tips from experts can help you do your part to develop a mutually satisfying and beneficial relationship.
Be Willing to Commit
The longer a mentoring relationship lasts, the stronger the benefits, according to a 2002 study about youth mentoring published in the American Journal of Community Psychology. Relationships that lasted less than six months had no positive impacts, the study found, while pairings that lasted less than three months did more harm than good.
“Don’t take it on lightly, thinking it will be fun or nice to put on your résumé,” says Liz Katkin, a former partner at an international law firm and mentor for new associates.
Be honest with yourself about how much time you have to give. In most cases, 12 to 18 months is a good length of time, though it can vary depending on the mentee’s goals.
Find the Right Fit
You may know someone you’d like to take under your wing, but more typically a mentee will find you, either by joining a mentoring program or engaging with you directly. How do you know if that person is a good fit for you and what you have to offer?
“Focus on what that person needs to learn,” says Lois Zachary, EdD, author of several books on the topic, including The Mentor’s Guide and Creating a Mentoring Culture. “Are they ready to learn? Do they have a commitment to their own growth and development?”
Don’t choose someone because she is like you or because it’s convenient, Zachary warns. And avoid mentoring someone you supervise at work; this tends to be less successful (a mentee might be less willing to take risks and be honest about vulnerabilities), and it may contribute to jealousy among peers.
Ask Good Questions
The first step is to identify and help clarify your mentee’s goals. Ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions to help your mentee reflect about creating his own future.
“A mentor’s job is to ask questions that help people get to deeper insights,” says Zachary. “It’s not about telling mentees what to do, but asking the questions that are going to support them in learning and help them clarify their vision for their future.”
Many mentors mistakenly assume that their mentees want to follow in their footsteps. “I learned that I needed to listen carefully to what my mentees wanted to do so I could help them with their goals instead of what I thought they should want,” says Katkin.
For instance, she eventually helped one of her mentees find a job outside of the law firm after recognizing that life balance was more important to the mentee than making partner. (For more on how to be a compassionate listener, see “5 Ways to Be a Better Listener.”)
Mentoring works best when there is ongoing, regular contact. In a 2013 meta-analysis of youth, academic, and workplace mentoring research, the frequency of interaction positively correlated to mentees’ perceptions of support and relationship quality. Specific frequency will depend on the goals of the mentoring relationship.
“Always have a meeting date on the calendar and stay focused on achieving goals,” Zachary says.
And understand that these targets may evolve. “If a mentee’s goals shift or priorities change, the mentee will have little energy or commitment toward achieving them,” she explains. Regular check-ins will also help you notice if you need to make mid-course adjustments.
Push Your Mentee
As Henry Ford is reputed to have said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Learning requires stretching the mind and taking risks, says Zachary. “A mentor facilitates this process by asking probing questions that challenge thinking.”
Gross agrees: “You need to get to the edge in order to grow,” he says. “If you stay in the comfort zone all the time, that’s where you’ll be.”
Compassionate, candid feedback is key to helping mentees reach their goals.
“Feedback can help close performance gaps and assist a mentee in targeting appropriate areas for growth and development,” says Zachary. She suggests that mentors offer their mentees constructive feedback at every meeting.
But this candid conversation should go both ways, she adds. “To stay on top of their game and grow in their role, mentors need to be willing to ask for feedback as well.”
Set a Good Example
“Be conscious that you’re a role model,” advises Gary Clemons, vice president and chief program officer for Friends of the Children (FOC), a mentoring organization for at-risk youth in Portland, Ore. “When you’re mentoring someone, do it with intention and have the big picture in mind.”
Clemons remembers his young mentees paying attention to his every move, whether opening a door for someone or saying please and thank you to strangers. “A lot of things we think we learned naturally are actually learned from seeing other people do them. Some kids don’t have that opportunity to see certain things,” he says.
Look at Your Own Life
Think back on those people who have influenced your life — for better or for worse. “The best way to learn how to be a mentor is to watch a mentor, as well as people who tried to be mentors but didn’t succeed,” says Gross.
Reflecting on how the mentors in your life imparted their wisdom can help you determine how to develop and nurture your most effective and rewarding relationships.
For tips on how to be a good mentee, see “Words of Advice for Mentees.”