Mentorships can be invaluable to our personal and professional development — if they are selected and structured thoughtfully. They can also waste incalculable time and produce boundless frustration if they are done poorly.
If you are setting out to mentor someone, here are three qualities that can keep the relationship productive and impactful.
Nothing kills a mentorship faster than a mentor who is never available. Being available goes beyond lunch and some superficial conversation every few months, however. Good mentors set regular times to meet with their mentees and commit to unscheduled meetings as their mentees need. And mentees do need unscheduled meetings, often at inconvenient times about important topics.
To mentor well, you must show up. Like any relationship, a good mentorship is built on trust and familiarity, which takes time and work to develop. So first and foremost, good mentors are regularly and meaningfully available for their mentees.
Being available means going to your mentee at times. As both a mentor and a mentee, I’ve benefited from showing up with no agenda beyond a cup of coffee and a chat. Availability also means taking your mentee into settings and making introductions they wouldn’t get on their own. Great mentors are available to clear a path for their mentees. Introductions my mentors made to their clients decades ago have grown into relationships I still benefit from today.
The best mentors are unfailingly honest. They provide honest advice and feedback — positive and negative — on a regular basis. They answer questions with care and candor, not with comfortable truisms. More importantly, they are honest and vulnerable about their own experiences, flaws, and failings.
Some of my best mentorship engagements turned on mentors talking honestly about their mistakes, their responses, and the lessons they learned. It is easy to put a mentor on a pedestal, but it is better to see them honestly through the lens of all their experiences. Great mentors offer and model honesty.
Honesty doesn’t end with pointing out problems, however. Take the time to show your mentee how to improve their work. Honest feedback paired with taking the time to teach can instill an invaluable growth mindset in your mentee. Including them in your own feedback loops can also help them develop the courage to fail that we all benefit from in our careers. As a lawyer, seeing my first mentor get and incorporate feedback on written arguments taught me a rigorous process for legal writing that I still use today.
It is impossible to be an effective mentor without being interested in your mentee. That means taking the time to get to know them personally. That understanding provides a foundation for the hard conversations and questions that are central to a good mentorship.
As a mentor, I’ve found that breaking the ice by telling my mentee about some of my passions away from work encourages them to share their own. It has been rewarding personally — and effective for our relationship — to take the time to read and learn about a mentee’s interests. It is low-stakes proof to your mentee that you’ll take the time to listen and learn about what’s important to them. It is also a fun way to continue to learn and grow in the middle of your career.
Great mentors learn the strengths and weaknesses, passions and aversions and quirks of personality of their mentees. This insight helps a mentor provide tailored advice as a result. Mentorship is an invested partnership — that starts with being deeply interested.
Mentorship is hard on either side, but it is profoundly rewarding when done right — and not just for the person being mentored. Taking on a mentorship role is an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life with the experience and wisdom you’ve gained.