What to Look for in a Mentor

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There’s a lot of talk in the business world today about mentorship. That’s a good thing.

In professional settings, pursuing a mentorship relationship can help new executives to access expertise and avoid mishaps through honest feedback and supportive encouragement. Mentorship helps people to grow and thrive.

I’ve seen this in leaders I’ve worked with; I’ve seen it in my own life, too. Most people who reach any level of professional success owe a good deal to a mentor somewhere along the way.

So, with all of that said – how can executives gain from mentorship? In other words, what makes a good mentorship, and what makes a good mentor?

Based on practical experience, here are a few guidelines.

What makes a good mentorship?

Let’s start by defining what a mentorship is and what it isn’t.

A mentorship relationship is not a coaching relationship. While both are growth-oriented, a mentorship is not as formalized (or paid), and it typically involves more conversation about the mentor than coaching does about the coach. 

A mentorship is a relationship in which an experienced person (the mentor) assists a less-experienced person (the mentee) in developing specific skills and knowledge that will enhance the less-experienced person’s professional and personal growth. 

In this, we can see two components that are key in mentorship: 

An organic connection. This is the relational component referenced in the above definition; it’s really hard to have a mentorship between two people who don’t click. The best mentorships develop (largely) naturally on the basis of common interests or shared values. As in dating, chemistry is essential. 

Intentionality in growth. In addition to organic connection, though, mentorship requires an intentionality toward growth – per our definition, a focus on “developing specific skills and knowledge.” This is what separates a mentorship from a friendship. 

What makes a good mentor?

Okay- we’ve covered what makes a good mentorship. But what makes a good mentor?

While there are a variety of different mentorship styles, I’ve found that nearly every mentor possesses every one of these three traits.

Mentors have experience. This is probably the most obvious trait of a good mentor: they have relevant experience in areas where the mentee is seeking to grow. In other words, mentorship almost always involves areas of role-overlap. A young CFO, for example, probably wouldn’t seek out mentorship from a veteran HR leader – but they’d do well to seek out a more experienced CFO. 

Be careful, though – a good mentor needs to have more than just relevant experience.

Mentors are giving. Regardless of role-overlap and experience, people that aren’t giving aren’t good mentors. Potential mentees should steer clear of people who make the relationship feel like an inconvenience, even if those individuals seem intelligent or steeped in relevant expertise. Mentorships with these people are more draining than filling. 

The reality is that people that are giving gravitate toward mentorship naturally. These people find fulfillment (and even catharsis) in helping others to “figure it out.” If you’re searching for a mentor, look for the givers.

Mentors give good feedback. Finally, mentors should give good feedback – both via honest analysis and supportive encouragement.

A mentor should be able to deliver critical feedback with honesty and kindness. Mentors shouldn’t be afraid to illuminate weaknesses or mistakes on the basis of their expertise when needed. Removing blind spots is critical to growth, after all. 

But just as people can be blind to their weaknesses, they can also be blind to their strengths. In fact, most people actually underestimate themselves. Mentors should be honest in offering supportive encouragement, too.

A good mentor will see more potential in the mentee than the mentee can see in themselves – and they’ll let the mentee know it. Coming as it does from a place of experience, this support is absolutely empowering for the mentee.

Looking for Growth?

Hopefully, these ideas have been helpful as you consider personal and professional growth for the executives within your organization – or for yourself. Mentorships really are invaluable. So, be intentional and go create a good one. 

And to reach the next level of leadership performance, consider executive coaching, too. The tactical framework of executive coaching can provide a powerful context for taking insights learned in mentorships and applying them in practice.

If you’re ready for a new approach, let’s talk.

 

 

Tobin Lehman