7 Ways to Be an Effective Mentor

March 6, 2018

Tracy Brady

Tracy Brady, SVP of Communications at Hill Holliday, is a 20-year veteran of marketing communications, publicity, and public relations in media, advertising, and entertainment. She has helped lead award-winning campaigns for Sony Pictures Entertainment, Turner Broadcasting, Twentieth Century Fox, Arnold Worldwide, and Modernista! and has developed communications strategies for brands including Bank of America, Dunkin’ Donuts, Merrell, Planet Fitness, Party City, Volkswagen, Tyson Foods, Goodyear, and Hershey’s. She is the mother of two boys and two widely unread but published novels.

Are you frequently frustrated by the status quo?  Do you spend part of each workweek in an existential funk wishing you could do more to effect change? Maybe one of your 2018 resolutions was to do more to give back. Mentoring is a great way to do that, and it’s both simpler and more rewarding than you probably think.

If you’re like me, it’s been many years since your first job, your first day managing people, and your first total professional disaster. Our triumphs and mistakes could fill a book, but most of us are probably never going to write it, so why not let others benefit from our pain and joy? I wish I’d sought a mentor when I started out. It wasn’t the buzzword it is now (“mentor” pre-2000 conjures a wizened white man, Jack Welch or Warren Buffet – a Fortune 500 version of Gandalf). We certainly didn’t think our generation had anything to teach older colleagues.

How times have changed. The beauty of 2018 is that now more than ever, younger generations have as much to offer as their seasoned counterparts. Many companies have implemented “reverse mentoring,” where digitally native Gen Z helps older staffers navigate social media platforms, digital trends, or office tools like Slack.

This year I’m a mentor with SheRunsIt, and my “mentee” is a woman every bit as accomplished (and as old) as I am. Turns out we both have a lot to offer and gain. I’ve mentored others informally over my career, and one thing I’ve learned is that everyone has something to teach you—if you are willing to shut down your ego and listen.

Here’re are seven guidelines for a successful mentorship: 

  1. There are no rules. You can mentor one person or a group. You can meet once a week or twice a year. You can register with a professional organization or put out an informal offer to mentor someone in your office. Mentoring is a personal, highly individual experience and you and your mentee can customize the structure for maximum efficiency, enjoyment, and results. Best of all, you probably don’t need approval or budget allocation from anyone. How many aspects of your job can you say that about?
  2. Listen. Before you unveil your genius by droning on about everything you’ve accomplished, don’t. Your first job as a mentor in the initial exchange is to shut up. Your second job is to listen. What does the person hope to get out of the experience? Are there specific aspects of their job they need help with? Do they want networking advice? Are there skills they want to? Treat them like a client: make sure you’re adding value that’s meaningful to them, not you. 
  3. Set expectations. Let your mentee know how much bandwidth you really have. Discuss how you’ll communicate, and how often, and how you’ll follow up on action items and set deliverables. If it makes sense, create a timeline or status sheet to keep you both on track. Make sure you understand what your mentor needs to succeed. You might think he wants advice. He might think you’re going to introduce him to the CEO. Talk about it.
  4. You don’t know what you know (until someone asks). You might think you have little to offer as a mentor. You’d be surprised how much you’ve learned and how interesting it sounds when you start talking. What’s old hat and possibly trivial to you could be a gold nugget for someone struggling with the same thing. Never assume you know what someone else will find interesting or valuable.
  5. It’s a two-way street. Like all relationships, you both matter. Commitment, trust, and reliability are crucial. Don’t overpromise; be realistic about what you can actually do. Make sure you understand how what you know can help them get what they want. To do that, you have to understand what they want. Ask. You’d be surprised how many people don't actually know. 
  6. Offer advice in small, concrete doses. A young woman I met told me she wanted to write. I read her samples and they were impressive – except for the typos. For someone who's been reading press releases for twenty years, this was second nature. For a digital native who perhaps depends heavily on spell check, not so much. This was a small, simple thing I could help with that I don’t think she’ll ever forget. “You know what our CEO hates more than anything?” I asked her. “Typos. Don’t make them. Ever.”
  7. Think different. If you really want to get the most out of mentoring, find someone you might not otherwise interact with naturally. Diversity, inclusion, and empathy in business have never been more important. You will undoubtedly gain more insight from someone who’s not your age, sex, race, background, or religion than you will from a junior version of yourself. And chances are it will serve you well beyond the office.

So what are you waiting for?  Someone out there is waiting for you to take the first step. 

Happy mentoring.