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We all know the value of having a solid mentor in our personal lives. Parents, teachers, and friends that not only help you be a better person, but also model and exemplify how to behave, are the mentors we most readily think of.
Professional mentorship isn’t all that different — it’s just more focused on helping you succeed in your current job or your career at large. We all need a little support and guidance in the professional world, and that’s exactly what these types of mentors are for.
Mentoring a coworker is about more than just on-the-job training though — it takes patience, deep knowledge of the field, and an enthusiasm for sharing this knowledge.
Whether you’ve been assigned as a mentor to a new hire or you’re actively seeking out a professional mentor right now, this article will cover the essential characteristics of a good mentor.
What Is a Mentor?
A mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser who provides practical advice, positive support, and a model for their mentee(s) to follow.
Mentorship at a company, at its core, is about building a relationship. In this relationship, two people will learn new things from one another while one person helps lead the other to become better at a job or task.
People who are mentors are invested in making a good relationship with their mentees. When you think of mentoring someone, you might envision taking them out for lunch and discussing work over a nice cold beer. But being a good mentor is often about being more hands-on than that.
Sometimes being a mentor will be a formal role and sometimes being a mentor will an informal one. If you are part of a formal mentor program at the company, you likely will have to assess the new employee as they start working at the company. Assessing a new employee helps determine ways to help the employee work their best.
Mentors also help by providing information or resources they need to do the best at their job. For example, if the new employee is having trouble adjusting to their new role or has questions on how best to accomplish certain tasks specific to the company, a mentor can be a highly valuable asset to find resources faster.
Also, when you start a new job, you aren’t just entering a new job position, but a new work culture and environment. A mentor will help a new employee navigate this environment and find their niche within the company culture.
Why Are Mentors Important?
Mentors are important because they have practical experience and skills that, by definition, their mentees lack.
It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or how much theory you’ve studied. When you start your first day on the job, move to a new industry, or change your career completely, it’s extremely helpful to have a person (or people) showing you the ropes.
Sure, you can Google the answer to just about any question these days, but what you can’t find on the internet are hyper-niche tips and tricks, the more subtle and nuanced ways of looking at your role in the industry, and the best ways to navigate personal relationships at your particular workplace.
Think of it this way — you can find great answers to “how to make an Excel budget” on the internet, but you can’t find an answer to “what sorts of Excel formulas have you found most useful for organizing marketing strategies and tracking the results of those campaigns while working in the e-learning industry?”
Mentors are critical for streamlining the process of learning what you actually need to learn to succeed at work while also helping you feel more comfortable with the culture of your company, industry, and field.
The Most Important Characteristics of a Good Mentor
If you’ve been approached about becoming a mentor or you’re currently looking for a mentor of your own, these are the characteristics of a good mentor:
Availability. This isn’t so much a characteristic, but it’s an essential step 0. A good mentor needs to be available for their mentee a reasonable amount of time each day or week for the relationship to be helpful.
If you’re asked to be a mentor, make sure you understand, off the bat, how much of your time the mentee needs. Also, figure out the logistics of communication — can your mentee check in whenever they need help, or will you catch up at the end of a workday or workweek with a longer meeting?
If you’re looking for a mentor, be clear about what you need from them as you approach the topic. Be proactive about creating a schedule that works best for your mentor to show that you value their time and appreciate the energy they’re putting toward your development.
Enthusiasm. A good mentor should enter into their position with enthusiasm. They should be confident and demonstrate a positive outlook at all times, even when commiserating about challenges the mentee is facing.
A good mentor genuinely loves discussing their field and is excited for the opportunity to share their knowledge. They value seeing their mentee make changes that have noticeable results rather than vaguely soliloquizing about their expertise.
If you’re approached to be a mentor, consider how enthusiastic you are about discussing the tips and tricks of your trade. And if you’re looking for a mentor, seek someone out who enjoys talking about the topics you want to cover.
Growth-focused. Great mentors are life-long learners and teachers. A mentor who takes time to thoughtfully research and answer any questions they don’t immediately know the answer to is exceptionally valuable because they’re willing to grow alongside you rather than assume a position of superiority.
Stand-out mentors realize that the relationship is about more than just learning to do one task or understand some new concept or process. It’s a long-term investment in the professional skills and insight that help their mentee succeed.
Active listening. A mentor should take time to understand the needs of the person they’re mentoring. Asking thoughtful questions and being curious about your challenges are great characteristics for a mentor to possess.
Good mentorship isn’t about imposing your way of doing things on the mentee. It’s about understanding the mentee’s natural approach to something and helping them be more effective without sacrificing their preferences.
If you’re a mentor, don’t talk all the time — listen and provide the input that your mentee needs to hear. And if you’re looking for a mentor, seek someone who is empathetic and a great listener.
Giving feedback. Communication skills are a must for a good mentor, and it’s especially essential to provide thorough and actionable feedback as the relationship develops. Good mentors know how to couch their constructive criticism in positive language so that their mentee feels encouraged, not hopeless.
A mentor that knows how to set both short- and long-term goals, and then effectively tracks those goals, is one worth keeping around. Feedback should always be aimed at helping the mentee leverage their strengths and adapt around their weaknesses.
Expert in the field. Mentors need a whole lot of soft skills to succeed in their role, but they also need expertise in the knowledge you hope to gain. If you want to succeed in marketing, an accountant probably doesn’t have much to offer you, regardless of if they possess good qualities of a mentor.
This doesn’t mean that mentors need to have all the answers. As we said above, a truly great mentor is there to learn alongside you and exemplify the joy of discovering and implementing new knowledge.
Still, they should have several years of experience and know the ropes of the industry. The idea is that they can share the pitfalls of a career in this industry with you, as well as tips and tricks they wish they had learned earlier in their careers.
Honesty and integrity. Great mentors aren’t just exceptional at their jobs — they’re well-respected for their ethics as well. They keep promises, hold themselves accountable, and don’t take or encourage shady shortcuts that are unprofessional or underhanded.
In other words, look for the mentor who tells you straight up that it’s going to take time and dedication to grow into your role, not that you can cheat the system with professional hacks to get around annoying parts of the job.
Adaptability. A good mentor will be upfront that the advice they give won’t work for every situation. Rather than show you one way of doing things, they’ll explain their approach to various problems and situations They won’t give you a fish — they’ll teach you how to fish, as the parable goes..
By giving you the tools to make more effective decisions on your own, a good mentor sets you up for long-term success, rather than overnight improvements that are narrowly focused. The ideal mentor is someone who models the ability to adapt on the fly and showcases the value of having such a deep knowledge of the field.
Networking skills. Mentors are great, but nobody knows everything. Really special mentors know how to network not just for themselves, but also for their mentees. They’ll put you in touch with people who have the knowledge you seek but they don’t feel confident teaching.
A mentor who really has your back isn’t there just to help you succeed at this particular company; they’re there to help your career go well, regardless of who you’re working for. They’ll be valuable allies when you’re thinking of switching jobs or even careers.
Positivity. A mentor who speaks negatively about the field or people at the company is not a great role model.
Instead, look for someone who has a positive outlook on their industry. Mentors who are goal-oriented and emphasize the positive aspects of your learning experience are the ones that make the most significant impact on their mentees.
Model behavior. For a mentor to have credibility, they have to do more than just tell their mentee how to be and what to do — they have to live those things as well. If you get a mentor who tells you one thing but does another, that’s not a good sign.
Either their advice is bad or their behavior is, but either way, you’re getting mixed messages. If you’re a mentor yourself, be sure to practice as you preach.
Good fit for mentee. Ultimately, a mentor-mentee relationship is just like any other in that personal chemistry is vital. You could be the most enthusiastic student and your mentor could be an industry expert who achieved the exact career you’d like for yourself. It doesn’t matter one bit if your personalities clash.
At the end of the day, you’re sharing your biggest anxieties, accomplishments, and curiosities with this person — make sure it’s an individual you feel comfortable sharing with and enjoy talking to.
Characteristics of a Bad Mentor
Overall, what makes a mentor good is being well-liked by the mentee and showing up for the role. Therefore, a bad mentor is just the opposite.
Here are some characteristics of a bad mentor that anyone hoping to become a mentor should avoid:
Speaking negatively about others in the company
Not offering feedback when needed
Being disrespectful when giving feedback
Not being available for the mentee
Uninterested in the field/industry/mentee
Long story short, being a bad mentor is essentially being a ghost mentor. If you are looking to become a mentor but don’t want to take the time out to foster that mentor-mentee relationship, don’t do it.
Having an excellent job title or being a distinguished worker won’t automatically make someone a good mentor. A mentor with a less prestigious role will be a better mentor than a higher-ranking person who doesn’t put in any effort.
So if you are uncomfortable giving feedback, have nothing good to say about others in the company, and can’t be present in the relationship, it’s probably best to avoid entering a mentorship program.
How Do I Find a Good Mentor?
Finding a good mentor involves either meeting new people who are interested in providing the type of guidance you’re looking for or turning a relationship you already have into a mentor-mentee relationship.
We don’t recommend forcing the issue by asking someone outright “will you be my mentor?” Instead, take the time to build a natural relationship where you’re gaining valuable insight from someone while bringing a new perspective to their way of thinking.
As you look around your professional and personal lives, start asking yourself questions about the people around you:
Do they have experiences you’d like to have yourself?
Are they a person who enjoys giving advice and can do so in a productive way?
Do you respect them as a person, beyond their professional knowledge?
Do others recognize this person as a skilled expert?
Does this person excel at giving nuanced and helpful feedback?
Has this person ever been a mentor or mentee themselves?
Are they invested in the concepts of professional development and personal growth?
Don’t stress about finding a mentor that ticks all the boxes. In truth, it’s best to have a few mentors who can balance each other out and cover different facets of your life where they’re most adept. And don’t fixate on the title of “mentor” like it’s a job. It’s just a different type of relationship and one that’s not mutually exclusive with friendship.
Be mindful of where you are now, where you want to be in a few years, and who has the insight and/or can provide the support that can help you get from point A to point B with as little pain and as much joy as possible. Then, actively nurture those relationships. Before you know it, you’ll have a mentor without having to force anything.
Being a mentor can be a lot of work. But more work doesn’t mean the opportunity isn’t worth it. Mentors are respected leaders in companies who have a genuine interest in helping new recruits or struggling workers become the best employees they can.
If you are interested in becoming a mentor, you should try it. A huge part about being a mentor is being invested in the process and if you are reading this, you probably are already somewhat invested.
Just keep in mind what characteristics to avoid and work on improving the characteristics to have and you’ll be on your way to becoming a great mentor.
And if you’re in the process of finding a mentor for your professional life, keep the above characteristics in mind as you set out on your search.
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