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What is a mentor? All you think a mentor is, and a lot more

Published 21st February 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Mentor helping mentee up a mountain

The outcome of successful mentoring is development of the person being mentored. By definition, then, a mentor is someone who successfully develops someone else.

It’s not an easy thing to do. What qualities do you need to possess to be a successful mentor?

A successful mentor…

  • ...is a subject-matter expert: people tend to be mentored in specific domains, such as in a particular industry (retail, for example) or task (leading fast-growth businesses). Having a broad level of experience helps mentors address mentees’ challenges from a rich knowledge base.
  • ...lets the mentee lead: mentoring is a process of personal development and as such the individual mentee knows the areas they wish to improve in. Mentors allow mentees to identify areas of personal concern rather than making judgements on the best areas to focus on, although advice can be given if requested.
  • ...focuses on development, not performance: coaching addresses specific goals, aiming to improve performance in a particular area. But mentoring is about the personal development of the individual. A mentor focuses holistically on the mentee’s personal development in many areas.
  • ...is in it for the long-term: coaching can be a short-term solution designed to address a specific need, with success driven by the skills of the coach. But successful mentoring is built on long-term relationships, driven by trust, where the mentor learns the strengths, weaknesses, goals and needs of the mentee.
  • ...challenges and sense checks: because the relationship is long-term, mentors are able to stretch and challenge mentees at the right time, as well as regularly clarify their goals and aims to ensure they are still relevant and suitable.
  • ...maintains relationship integrity: in mentoring the relationship is paramount. If there is a breach of trust, it’s very difficult for the mentoring arrangement to continue. As such, maintaining this is most important for the mentor, rather than, for example, reporting back to the organisation on how the mentee is doing.
  • ...is a patient guide: a mentor is not like a personal trainer, pushing someone to succeed consistently. They should act as a guide, helping to orient the individual to locate their own path to success and move along the journey at their own pace.
  • ...point out potential obstacles through insight: many people like having mentors because they have ‘walked the path’ before and can offer insight into potential unintended consequences or hazards. This allows mentees to learn from mistakes before they’ve made them.
  • ...draws out the possibilities: they act as ‘broadeners,’ helping the mentee develop their thinking in terms of identifying all the potential solutions and ideas and making judgements as to their relative merit.
  • ...values both discipline and care: there’s a strong commitment to self-insight, discovery and development and good mentors make sure these aims are always in sight, while giving plenty of scope and compassion for the mentee to find their own way.
  • ...is humble: just as the mentee is on their lifelong journey of self-discovery, a good mentor recognises that despite their experience they have limitations and that their mentee’s path may differ from their own, but that they both ultimately lead to the same experience and knowledge
  • ...is free from personal agenda or ideology: good mentors provide advice and guidance based on the values, needs, goals and desires of the mentee, rather than a commitment to any fixed ideology, political position or desire to advance a specific cause.

That’s a whole lot that a successful mentor should bring to a mentoring relationship. Is there anything else? What do you think a successful mentor looks like?