Making the most of the mentor-mentee relationship

Benefits abound from successful mentorships, for both mentor and mentee. But beware of toxic mentorships and the fallout they can bring.

There’s definitely something to be said for the fruits that can be borne from a successful mentor-mentee relationship.

Socrates taught Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle, and the three were responsible for much of Western philosophy that followed.

Much later, American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson mentored a young Henry David Thoreau, who became one of our greatest early American scholars.

Heck, legendary musician Ray Charles mentored his contemporary Quincy Jones, who only went on to become a celebrated record producer, actor, conductor, arranger, composer, musician, television producer, film producer, instrumentalist, magazine founder, entertainment company executive, and humanitarian, and whose career in the entertainment industry as an influencer has spanned six decades.

Of course, you don’t have to go down in history to reap the benefits of having a mentor, or mentoring someone yourself. And there’s a strong business case for finding a career guide and in turn guiding others.

According to a new survey from Robert Half Management Resources, 62% of CFOs have served as a mentor during their career, up from 49% in 2011. However, while 86% of CFOs acknowledged the importance of having a mentor, only 26% of workers reported they actually have one.

Only 18% of female professionals interviewed for the survey said they have a mentor, compared to 33% of male respondents. Among the greatest advantages of this relationship, according to CFOs, is learning firsthand from someone in a role to which you aspire. Madison professionals, however, can find significant benefits to being on either side of a mentoring relationship, notes Jim Jeffers, metro market manager of Robert Half in Madison.

Jeffers lists the following benefits of being a mentor to a colleague or professional acquaintance:

  • Mentoring provides mentors with the opportunity to hone their communication and leadership skills.
  • As an example, CFOs who have been a mentor said the greatest benefits are the opportunity to improve leadership skills (38%) and the satisfaction of helping others (29%).
  • Mentoring gives mentors the chance to see different points of view and also provides an opportunity to expand their network.
  • It’s a great way to stay current on industry trends.
  • Everyone — even those at the top of their fields — can benefit from learning opportunities and hearing the insights and experiences of others.
  • It feels good to help others and watch them grow.
  • In many cases, the mentee is from a different generation (such as a millennial or member of Gen Z) and there’s an opportunity to learn about new technologies and new ways of doing things.

Jeffers also points out the following benefits of mentoring for mentees:

  • Learning firsthand from someone in a role you aspire to;
  • Learning the unwritten rules of the company or industry;
  • Learning from an experienced person about the mistakes they made and learned from;
  • Having a neutral sounding board for your ideas;
  • Assistance navigating office politics and conflicts;
  • Getting introduced to new contacts and expanding your network;
  • Mentors can be career catalysts to help professionals at all levels advance their careers; and
  • Having a strong career advocate from within the same organization can help mentees rise through it.

How do you find a mentor?

First, says Jeffers, determine what you need. Consider the specific qualities the person should possess, as well as how he or she might assist you.

“Identify someone you admire and respect,” Jeffers advises. “Think about individuals you'd like to emulate. An advisor within the company may be better equipped to help you navigate personalities and politics, while an external mentor can serve as a sounding board and help you stay current on industry trends. Your mentor should ideally be someone who is not in a formal position to evaluate your job performance. Instead, select someone with whom you can talk candidly about career and workplace issues. Your mentor doesn’t need to be a person from your company. However, if you do find a mentor within your company, they can end up being a strong career advocate.”

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Young professionals on the lookout for a career mentor should also choose someone who has a positive attitude, time to commit to the relationship, and is honest with advice.

Unfortunately, not every mentoring program does what it sets out to do,” acknowledges Jeffers. “When mentoring relationships aren’t properly supported, they can fail, to the frustration of both the mentor and mentee.”

Jeffers suggest a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to mentorship programs:

Don’t pair people at random. It’s never a good idea to make random mentoring matches by picking names out of a hat, notes Jeffers. Instead, first identify possible mentors in your organization. Don’t just assume that any senior-level professional is willing to participate in a mentoring program or has time for one. Approach candidates to gauge their interest level in serving as a mentor. You want to find people who are enthusiastic about the idea, and are willing and able to commit.

Then, ask potential mentees about their professional interests and long-term goals and what they hope to get out of a mentoring relationship, either in person or through a survey. Consider uniting various generations in your workplace. For example, pair junior employees with tenured ones by considering their interests and personalities. This kind of thoughtful selection process increases the likelihood that the relationship will be beneficial and successful.

Do define the role of the mentor. Do you want the mentors in your organization to be life coaches who meet with their mentees for weekly sessions, or just more-experienced employees your junior staff members can have coffee with once a month? It’s important to spell out your expectations at the start, no matter what they are.

Do keep in mind that a mentor should not directly supervise or work alongside their mentee, reminds Jeffers. Mentors should offer guidance and direction, but they should not be in a position to tell the mentee what to do or how to do it. Also, every mentorship should have an end date, after which both parties can decide to continue or part ways.

Don’t treat mentoring as a one-way street. Mentoring is not a monologue where leaders impart wisdom while followers simply sit and take notes. Effective mentoring is a dialogue; mentees often offer valuable insights and information to their mentors as well, notes Jeffers.

Your mentoring program can push this concept further by introducing reverse mentoring, where a junior member of staff acts as a mentor to someone more experienced. This is often used to help senior employees improve their IT and social media skills, as many millennials have a strong grasp of those realms.

Do allow enough time for the relationship. When the office gets busy, mentoring is often the first thing that gets pushed off everyone’s schedule. If it’s left on the back burner too long, there’s a chance it’ll end up being forgotten completely.

To help ensure the success of your mentoring program, ask participants to make the relationship a priority. Encourage them to put meeting dates on their calendars and treat them like mandatory events, offers Jeffers. Consider setting aside some of your department’s budget to reimburse mentors and mentees for lunches they have together. And remind mentors and mentees that there’s value in scheduled phone conversations, just as there is with spontaneous text messages.

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