In education and business, we often see the term ‘mentor’ used in specific, designed ways. New teachers are assigned to a mentor teacher and are required to meet with this person for a certain number of hours throughout the year. Law firms and businesses have mentoring programs that pair senior executives with new partners.

However, many people step into the role of mentor without any formal invitation or label. Often the people who are most effective, connected, and trusted in their role as leader, supervisor, or manager are also serving as great mentors. When we see employees who are engaged, empowered, and appreciative of those from whom they take direction, we are often looking at the evidence of great mentoring in action.

Some people become, with experience, fantastic mentors over time. Other leaders benefit from additional training in how to be a mentor. When we coach and train people who are working to improve their mentorship skills, we start with these questions: What makes a person a great mentor? What inspires people to reach out and connect with someone? How does a mentor best convey the wisdom and life experience a new hire needs?  

Through the training process, we discover that a great mentor possesses many of the same skills as a great coach. Mentors and coaches both focus, first and foremost, on developing rapport and relationship. People need to feel safe, heard, and respected before they will choose to engage with any depth or receptivity. To create rapport and relationship, we begin with these four skills:

Active listening.

People often believe that, as mentors, we should provide information, answers, and guidance. While this may be true, the process begins primarily with listening. As mentors, we listen to both what is being said, and also for what is not said. From listening, we learn about what is most important to those we mentor. We take our cues from what they share, and we set aside our own agenda.

Asking the right questions.

Great mentors ask great questions. We ask open-ended questions that invite those we mentor to expand and elaborate on what they are saying. We use these questions as a way to allow us to do even more active listening. With the exception of a few initial queries, our questions come from what we are hearing in the conversation, not from something we have decided in advance.

Acknowledging and validating often.

At every opportunity, we acknowledge what is working well. There are very few situations in life that inspire as much anxiety and vulnerability as beginning a job in a new environment with new expectations. As mentors, we have an opportunity to help people celebrate even the smallest victories and steps of progress. When those we mentor share particularly sensitive information or confide how challenging something feels, our responses show understanding, affirm the normalcy of the experience, and offer insights that add depth to the degree of trust and rapport the person feels in the relationship.

Using stories to impart knowledge and experience.

Sometimes, particularly in the role of mentor, we choose to share information or a perspective that the person we are mentoring does not yet have. We remember the vulnerability of the person sitting in front of us and the eagerness he or she has to ‘get it right.’ Sharing a story gives us an opportunity to illustrate our point or perspective while creating enough space for the person in front of us to consider the personal relevance. We can offer correction and guidance in a way that even the most sensitive individual may be able to receive.

The best mentors have benefited from great mentoring. When seeking to develop strong mentoring skills, one of the best strategies is to receive coaching from a experienced mentor.

In the comment section below, we invite you to share your experience with working with an effective leader and mentor.