Workforce Development

Meaningful Mentorship: Proven Principles for Success

What’s in a name?

The themes from Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey are ubiquitous. Even if they have never read them or know them by name; most people will recognize the story when it is described, as they are directly or indirectly impacted by many of the archetypes contained in these timeless classics. One impact to the professional world today is the genesis of the word ‘mentor'. Before Odysseus, king of Ithaca, leaves to join the great Trojan War, he leaves his son Telemachus in the charge of his trusted friend and advisor Mentor. This charge was not just a, “Hey, when you have a spare moment can you look in on my boy Telemachus here?” but was more a commitment to help protect his son and help him grow to fulfill his full potential in his father’s absence. 

Mentorship Misunderstood

A Google search of the term “mentor” will get you over a billion results. There clearly is no shortage of opinions and thoughts on the term. Given that the generalized definition of the word is “a trusted counselor or guide”, who wouldn’t want a mentor1? In a professional survey reported by the Harvard Business Review, it was found that, “76% of working professionals believe that a mentor is important to growth and yet more than 54% do not have such a relationship"2. This causes me to have two thoughts. First, I worry about the 24% who don’t agree that mentorship is important to growth (I wonder if maybe they aren’t in the right profession and may need to re-evaluate some career choices). Second, and more importantly, I am floored that a majority of respondents reported that they do not have a mentor. Upon further reflection, I've concluded that maybe we aren’t all on the same page as to what a mentor is. For this reason, I would like to share my experience with mentorship to illustrate five key principles of the concept. Since there is so much misunderstanding in general, I have also provided some specified insights for mentees and mentors.

Mentorships start with heart.

I have been a fortunate recipient of fabulous mentorship over the course of my career. I owe a debt of gratitude to numerous mentors, but one mentor in particular definitely stands out.

I was assigned to work with Eric for a short 3-month rotation over 10 years ago.  At that time, Eric got to know me, but on more than just surface level things. He got to know the “real me”. He started by learning about my family, personal interests, and career goals. He reciprocated and shared  personal stories about his life, his family and different challenges he’d overcome in his career. Next, Eric expressed a genuine interest in my personal beliefs because he could tell that they deeply informed the person I was and the person I wanted to be. I appreciated that he was not only tolerant of my beliefs, but he sought to build on common ground where we had shared values. Finally, I learned to really value his insights and opinions because A) I knew from firsthand experience, being walked through his decision-making process, that he was brilliant and B) I knew he genuinely understood me and wanted me to succeed.

Mentees: As you deliberately select mentors (yes that is intentionally plural), find someone you have had some meaningful interaction with, who you respect, and who seems to have a real interest in you.

Mentors: Mentorship is a meaningful commitment and not for the faint of heart. Only agree to be a mentor if you are willing to materially help the mentee.

Successful mentorships intentionally communicate.

At the end of my rotation with Eric, he ensured that I had all his contact information, and he expressly communicated to me that he expected me to use it. We have had numerus check-in meetings over the years. I initiated many as the mentee, but there were also times where he seemed to know intuitively that I needed to talk, and he would e-mail or call me. Through ups and downs, Eric has been there for me. He has been ready with words of congratulations when I have experienced success, and words of encouragement during my setbacks. What has made Eric unique to me is his accessibility. When I have had time-sensitive and urgent concerns, Eric has told me repeatedly that if his schedule is full (and it frequently is), that I can also call or text him outside of regular work hours.

Mentees: Ask for what you need and request regular check-ins at an appropriate frequency. However, be respectful of your mentor’s time. Remember they are working with you out of the goodness of their hearts, so come to meetings prepared and do any “homework” they may assign you.

Mentors: Communicate your availability and your expectations/preferences for communication. You are part of this mentoring partnership and can help ensure it succeeds by inviting regular contact (this is not necessarily the same thing as frequent contact).

The central aim of mentorship is helping the mentee reach their potential.

Whenever I have had meetings with Eric, he makes me do most of the talking. He asks a lot of thoughtful questions. He helps me evaluate things from multiple angles. He helps me uncover my underlying motivations and reach clarity around what I actually want. Eric is very judicious about when he gives advice, providing it only when I ask for it and being careful in how he delivers it. For example, early on in our mentoring partnership, there was a time where I was frustrated with an intractable problem that I had been dealing with for months. I finally asked Eric what he would do in my situation. Then there was a long pause in our conversation; I thought I had finally stumped him, and I told him so. He said, “Trevor, I know what I would do and how I would handle the problem. But that is not the point. There are a lot of approaches that could work in this situation. The point of us meeting isn’t for you to become more like me and solve problems the way I would. We are meeting to help you become the best YOU, you can be”.

Mentees: Like most human relationships, you will largely get out of the mentorship what you put into it. Early in your career, you may need to start with a lot of questions around how to achieve something or get things done. But as you gain experience in a topic, you’ll find reflecting on deeper questions around "why" or "how" will draw more insightful replies that help you create your own style and approach.

Mentors: If you are fortunate enough to be asked to mentor, you are doing something right. At the very least, you are competent at a specific task or individual process. You could always tell someone what you did and assume that is how they should do it. Many who are new to mentoring may think this is the sum-total of their role, i.e. “I am the expert and I’ll tell you what to do”. Your experience is largely what you are bringing to the table but this is NOT mentorship. Mentorship is about growing the mentee and helping them achieve their goals. Can you help them make better goals? Sure. Can you give them the benefit of your wealth of knowledge to draw upon. Absolutely. Should you be in the business of telling your mentee what to do? As a general rule… I would strongly advise against it.

Mentorship is optimistic encouragement.

You may feel that what I have described as mentorship sounds like a good friendship. While I hold Eric in the highest esteem, I wouldn’t call him my friend. It is something more than friendship. When I met him 10 years ago, I didn’t need another friend (nor frankly did I want one). What I needed was someone with judgement and experience, who was willing to offer me insights into the nitty gritty of the profession I had selected for myself. I needed someone who would give me candid feedback on my performance. I needed someone who could help me figure out how to reach my goals, and who would then partner with me in holding myself accountable. That is exactly what I got. Sometimes, getting an accurate view of things hurt deeply. Seeing my opportunities for improvement was - at times - uncomfortable, and at other times, daunting. But Eric’s encouragement and support through my growth meant the world. His counsel and encouragement made finding my way less difficult. To me, Eric is the perfect example of what it means to be a real mentor.

Mentees: Expect to take feedback that can be uncomfortable, but always try to move it into a realm of action. When you don’t get the results you want, reflect on what you can control and what you can influence. Draft an action plan and discuss it with your mentor. If you have been purposeful in selecting your mentor, they likely have had similar experience or have seen others face a comparable challenge. They should be able to give you advice on what they have seen work.

Mentors: You should not be afraid of being candid and 100% truthful in response to a mentee's questions or requests for insight. With that said, you can manage feedback to a level of directness that is suitable and appropriate for where the mentee is in their development and the level of mutual investment that has been made in the mentorship to date. Admittedly, it is an art, not a science; but that shouldn’t stop you from providing a genuine answer to a sincere question. Apart from your experience, the main thing you should be bringing to the table is a sense of optimism in what the mentee can accomplish. Your thoughtful encouragement may make all the difference!

Mentorship should be generative.

Having well over 10 years of practice in my chosen career, I am now getting approached to mentor a variety of different people. I have found it extremely successful and rewarding to use Eric as a role model. First, I try to get to know them, beyond the professional persona they present. Second, I make myself accessible to the mentee at whatever cadence/frequency works for them. Lastly, I let them know I don’t plan to tell them what to do. I share my belief that the point of mentorship is to help them become their best selves. I tell them I believe they have great potential and good judgment. If something I share resonates and makes sense to them, I invite them to take it and make it their own. If they think some observation or advice isn’t helpful, I tell them I won’t be offended if they disregard my thoughts and feedback. Sometimes I’ll mentor someone for a short time and redirect them to someone who will be a better fit for their goals. Ultimately, with any mentee, I try asking them lots of questions to help them sort out their unique underlying goals and personal motivation. Then I help them to hold themselves accountable with agreed-on actions they will take before our next meeting.

Over the years, I sometimes wondered why Eric took the time to show any interest in me. Now having had the chance to serve as a mentor, I see how fulfilling and meaningful it can be. Mentorship has been a fabulous opportunity to for me to pay back some of the debt I owe to the exceptional mentors who have helped me, chief among them, Eric.  

Mentees: Mentorship should lead you to experience growth. Organic life is either living and growing, or it is dying and dead. You ought to seek growth at every stage of your career, and for that matter, you should see it in your mentoring relationship. I sincerely hope you will try to seek out the best mentorship opportunities you can and that you will take advantage of them. I hope the resulting growth and experience will lead you to seek out opportunities to “pay it forward” and to help someone else on their career journey. Might I highly recommend for your consideration serving as a mentor?

Mentors: Serving as a mentor is a wonderful opportunity. It can be exciting to help someone overcome varied challenges in their career. While there are numerous and varied ways people can find fulfillment in their careers, I can tell you few things are as professionally rewarding as celebrating a mentee’s success and knowing you played a role in bringing it about.

Mentorship is an ideal worth spreading around.

My aim with this article is to share some of the key principles in successful mentorship. I endeavored to do so by dissecting a case example of successful mentorship I personally received, and by providing insights and commentary that would be of interest to individuals serving in both mentor and mentee roles. At the start of this article, we discussed how we got the term "mentor". (From what we can tell in the story, Mentor of Ithaca, was an excellent mentor to Telemachus; and successfully helped him with his growth and character progression.) Since you’ve read this far into the article, I hope you’ll indulge me in a brief digression on the "why" of mentorship. While not an ancient Greek poem that has influenced the world for centuries, I find that the musical, “Hello, Dolly” waxes poetical at times. I specifically have always loved a quote the lead protagonist Dolly Levi shares regarding a heartfelt opinion of her late husband, “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” I’d like to aptly adapt this quote to our review of mentorship principles today. Generally speaking, the more experience you have, the more money you can make. So, by the transitive property I would change this to posit that in the context of mentorship:

“Experience, pardon the expression, is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” -Trevor Coons

My invitation today is for everyone to not only recognize the importance of mentorship for professional growth (at least most do at 76% per the survey mentioned earlier), but it is also a call to action for prospective mentors and mentees alike to step up their game, and put themselves out there so at the very least everyone can identify at least one mentor in our careers.

Mentor Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster1

How to Build a Great Relationship with a Mentor (