There’s so much talk about the importance of mentoring. But there’s not a lot of guidance on how to mentor well.
Here are four simple practices for mentoring with excellence, four small shifts you can make in any conversation to ensure you are truly supporting, empowering and developing the person sitting across the table from you:
Repeat what your mentee said to make sure you understood her.
A mentee comes to you to discuss a tough career dilemma: She wants to join a special company taskforce the CEO has invited her to, but her boss wasn’t invited. She’s concerned her boss — who sometimes isn’t so supportive — will feel threatened.
Before you launch into advice, make sure you’ve understood what she’s said, by repeating it back to her. You might say, “So, let me make sure I’ve got what you are saying: You would really like to join this taskforce, but you aren’t sure if it will have negative consequences with your boss, did I get that right?”
Why is this helpful? First, if you know you will need to reflect back what she’s saying, you’ll be a better listener from the first moment of the meeting. Second, when she hears you reflect back what she’s saying, she’ll feel truly heard
Ask what kind of support she wants.
Often, mentors assume their primary job is to give advice. The truth is there are lots of other ways mentors can give support: being a listening ear, being a brainstorming or problem-solving partner, being a cheerleader or being an advocate. All of these are as important — if not more important — than giving advice.
Next time your mentee brings up a topic with you, take the opportunity to introduce to her this concept of different forms of support. You might say, “What kind of support would you most like from me right now? Would you like to do some brainstorming together or for me to help you figure out what you really think or feel about this? Or are you looking for some emotional support in this rough situation?”
Talk with her about the different kinds of support and let her know you’ll be asking her to discern what kind of support she’s most looking for in any situation. This is actually great mentoring in itself; you are teaching your mentee the skill of discerning what kind of support she needs.
Ask coaching questions.
A coaching question is an open-ended question (not a yes/no question or an either/or question). It’s simple and short. Coaching questions are powerful because they help the person answering the question access their inner wisdom. They don’t help the person asking the question to gather information. They help the person answering to further their learning, find clarity or move forward the action — simply by pondering the right question.
“Are you sure your boss will be upset about this?” is not a good coaching question, because it is a yes/no question. A better version is, “What facts do you have about how your boss will react?” or “What assumptions are you making here?”
“Are you planning to tell your boss about this before or after you join the task force?” isn’t a good question, because it’s an either/or question. A much more impactful question — one that will take the mentee further into problem-solving — is, “What’s most important about how you inform your boss of this?” or “What’s your intuition about how to tell your boss?”
Remind her this is your point of view.
You might say, “This was my experience…. These were some of my lessons learned…. That was what was true for me — and it may or may not be true for you — in your time, in your circumstances. You have a different personality than me, different strengths and the field is changing rapidly. Take with you what resonates here and leave the rest.”
Pass on lessons learned, but talk about them as part of your subjective experience — not as absolute truth and not as advice that tells your mentee what to do. This gives your mentee the opportunity to discover her own truth in relationship to your truth. That will lead her to her right decisions.
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