Mentoring 101

Mentoring 101

The capacity to mentor your employees is a critical workplace skill. But how do you get started?

While there's no definitive approach to mentoring, these strategies will help you grow into a role you may have had little or no training for.

Tune in to Individual Needs

The key to becoming a successful mentor is to approach each protege as an individual, says Chip R. Bell, president of The Chip Bell Group and author of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning.

"Mentoring everyone the same is not effective," Bell says. "Sometimes differences in ages can be a factor -- [like] a 27-year-old manager mentoring a 58-year-old protege. Sometimes differences in gender, race and ethnic background can also be a factor. Proteges learn in different ways."

Reesa Staten, director of research for staffing firm Robert Half International, agrees it's important to understand people's different priorities. For example, don't assume every staff member wants to be a manager.

Also, consider different learning styles. Some people absorb new information best when it's offered verbally. Others prefer documents, while other workers want to be shown.

Once you understand what motivates an employee, it's easier to guide that person in a direction that benefits both the employee and the organization.

Strive to Guide, Not Direct

Staten recommends checking in with staff members periodically to discuss their career goals and how to achieve them. Be on the lookout for junior-level employees who exhibit strong leadership skills. Staff members who display energy, commitment, integrity, good decision-making skills and the courage to take smart risks are your future leaders.

Mentors should let employees take the conversational lead. Good listening skills are paramount. "The best mentors provide encouragement and honest criticism," Staten says. "They don't direct; they guide."

Ask for Help

If you feel unsure as a mentor, discuss your concerns with company leaders. They will likely be eager to help.

And take advantage of structured mentoring programs. These programs, usually limited to six to 12 months, supplement informal mentoring relationships initiated by managers, Staten says. They pair people with complementary skills and create a systematic approach for achieving measurable results.

These programs may be coming to a company near you: A survey by Robert Half International found 35 percent of executives whose organizations were taking steps to compensate for the loss of Baby Boomers to retirement said their firms are implementing or enhancing mentoring programs.

"It is vital for managers to let employees know they are acting as a mentor, since effective mentoring is a partnership," Bell says.

Hone Your Mentoring Technique

Bell offers these tips for becoming a better mentor:

  • Establish a partnership that helps your protege learn.
  • Foster discovery. Thought-provoking questions are more powerful than smart answers.
  • Allow for mistakes. They are necessary for growth.
  • Put your protege at ease by being authentic, open and sincere.
  • Act more like a friend than a boss.
  • Give feedback that helps your protege improve his performance.
  • Continue your support after meetings.
  • If your mentoring relationship isn't working, discuss your concerns.

Mentoring need not end when employees leave the company. Keep in touch with former team members, Staten says. Both you and they can benefit from exchanging information and advice over time.

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