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Learning to Be a Better Mentor from Your Mentees

A relationship works only when both parties recognize it’s a mutually beneficial alliance.

When was the last time that you spoke at length to someone meaningfully younger than yourself? What did you learn?

To be blunt, if you’re not learning anything, you’re doing it wrong. As the research in this domain reveals, “the (mentoring) relationship works only when both parties recognize it’s a mutually beneficial alliance, a truly two-way street.”

I was reminded of this recently when I participated in a career networking event for high school students. I hope that I shared something meaningful with them, but I’m certain that they taught me an awful lot.

Among other things that I (re-)learned was to appreciate the reality that even if you have access to a mentor, you may not know what to ask him. Do you remember when you were just starting out: did you possess the confidence to ask good questions of distinguished people to whom you may have just been introduced and, even more, to do so in front of an audience? 

It was a gift to have to go back through all of those years of my life, place myself in their position and try to translate what I’ve been fortunate to experience in ways that were accessible for them.

Another blessing of this experience was to be reminded about how challenging and fraught decision-making can be when you don’t have much access to people who’ve blazed the trail before you. It took a lot of courage for the students to be honest in asking what they really wanted to know instead of what they thought we might want to hear as potential mentors and, ultimately, as employers.

Having had a bit of time to reflect on the experience now, I almost feel guilty, because I’m convinced that I learned more than I could possibly have shared with the students. I was challenged to reconsider so much of what I’ve come to take for granted and, in so doing, to initiate a learning and research effort that’s proven both unusually fertile and powerfully insight-filled. After decades of serving as a mentor, it became clear to me that I needed to re-pack my bags and up my game.

For example, in a classic MIT Sloan Management Review article, management guru Henry Mintzberg notes that executives manage by information, through people and by action. One of the important aspects of “managing through people” is leveraging the “linking” opportunity to connect those whom you mentor with others who can also serve as resources for them.

When’s the last time that someone came to you for advice and, in addition to sharing your own perspective, you referred them to someone else who could also be of help? The appropriateness of this practice is more evident when being asked to provide guidance in an area in which we have little or no experience and/or expertise, but it’s also a smart mentoring strategy even when we’re experts in a particular domain: after all, won’t our mentees be even more deeply developed by being exposed to multiple perspectives on an issue or opportunity that they’re exploring?

A final suggestion: when you speak to your mentees, after having imparted the requested guidance, do you ask for anything in return?

If not, you really should. According to the research:

Your mentees see and experience the world and your organization—and you as a leader—very differently than you do. Chances are that if you don’t ask, they won’t tell, and you’ll both miss important opportunities to share meaningfully with and develop each other. This research complements findings from other studies that reinforce not only the importance of the mutuality of a mentoring relationship—that is, that it has to be beneficial for both parties, not just the junior one – but also of the proactivity of the mentor: again, don’t make your protégés have to ask for your guidance; share it with them first and freely.

Which brings me back to that beneficial networking event: another true blessing that I experienced during the session was being able to listen to and learn from a young lady who looked familiar to me and whose name sounded familiar as well. She was an early-career professional and an alumna of the program sponsoring the event. Essentially, to the high school participants, she was the big sister who’s come home to share insights on what they should expect in the years to come.

In a word, she was spectacular: poised, confident, clearly knowledgeable, appropriately expressive and thoughtful in her contributions to the dialogue. In fact, she was the very embodiment of the sponsoring organization’s mission: a powerful and compelling example of what happens when well-prepared students earn access to opportunities with the result being outstanding (individual and collective) performance and progress as well as ever more widely opening doors to opportunity for the next generations to follow.

And then it hit me: even though it was now seven years later, she and I had met and spoken at some length before. This was that nervous teenager who’d been selected to represent her peers by sharing her story at a benefit dinner to raise funds for the organization that, at the time, was helping her to become the first member of her family to go to college. She is now a young woman in full: an honors graduate of a top college who’s enjoying a successful career at a biotech firm. When I offered her words of guidance and encouragement some years ago, I’d describe her as hopeful but cautious; today, the best word to describe her is fierce.

Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.

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