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How to Be a Mentor in Your Workplace in 2021

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Mentoring in the workplace is one of those rare things that’s good for everybody involved.

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Mentoring in the workplace can have powerful benefits. Image source: Envato Elements

As we’ll see in this article, mentoring has important benefits for companies and for the people being mentored (known as protégés or mentees). It makes people happier and more successful, and it makes companies more diverse and productive. And another crucial point, which is often overlooked, is that it also pays off for the people doing the mentoring too.

But how do you do it right? In this tutorial, we’ll look at how to be a good business mentor. We’ll cover the nuts and bolts of getting things started on the right foot, and then we’ll look at some best practices for being a mentor at work. And we’ll finish with some quick tips for people who are looking for a mentor.

So let’s get started!

1. The Benefits of Mentoring

Mentoring someone doesn’t cost anything, but it can involve a significant time commitment. If you’re a busy manager or business owner, you probably have enough demands on your time already.

So why would you want to take on mentoring?

Because it’s good for everyone involved—including you. In this section, we’ll look at the benefits of mentoring for mentors, for the people being mentored, and for companies.

1. The Benefits of Mentoring for Mentors

Mentoring can be deeply satisfying. Guiding someone through the challenges you faced yourself at an earlier stage of your career and helping them to avoid some of the pitfalls you encountered is a good thing to do. If the person you mentor goes on to be successful, you can feel proud of that.

But there are also tangible benefits beyond good feelings:

  • You get to learn valuable new interpersonal skills that'll help you in your own career by making you a better leader and manager. 
  • You can gain new insights by interacting with someone who is at a different stage of their career and may have a different perspective. 
  • In a good mentoring relationship, you can end up feeling motivated and inspired to do better work.
  • Your mentee may one day be in a position to help you when you need it.

According to an academic study:

“Compared to colleagues who did not mentor, individuals who served as mentors within their workplace reported greater job satisfaction and commitment to the organization. In addition, higher quality relationships were associated with even greater benefits.”

Most mentors do it because they want to help other people, not for the personal benefits. But it’s worth knowing that those benefits do exist.

2. The Benefits of Mentoring for Mentees/Protégés

Look at pretty much any successful figure, and you’ll find they had a mentor.

Steve Jobs, for example, was mentored by Bob Noyce of Intel. Jobs once said:

“Bob Noyce took me under his wing. I was young, in my twenties. He was in his early fifties. He tried to give me the lay of the land, give me a perspective that I could only partially understand.”

That’s the kind of benefit you can get from mentoring. Jobs understood the value of it, because he then went on to give the lay of the land to younger tech luminaries like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page.

Numerous studies have backed up the benefits of mentoring. This huge meta-analysis of over 100 different academic studies found that people with mentors enjoyed:

  • more job satisfaction
  • more motivation
  • higher career expectations
  • greater career success
  • better communication and problem-solving skills

And, by the way, that’s only a partial list. The study found more benefits, and other research has added to it. For example, this research shows the expected salary increases from being mentored. Would you prefer to be on the purple line or the blue one?

Salary growth from being mentoredSalary growth from being mentoredSalary growth from being mentored
Source: Financial Management Magazine

3. The Benefits of Mentoring for Companies

So we’ve seen that mentoring is good for both parties involved. But what about companies? Well, it turns out that there are significant benefits of mentoring programs in the workplace for companies too.

Let’s start with the transfer of skills and knowledge. Companies invest a lot of money in training their employees, but mentoring is a simple, free way of transferring knowledge and skills among your employees.

But it goes further. As well as having more skills, your employees will also be more engaged and motivated. Take a look at the list of benefits for mentors and mentees that we’ve covered above and ask yourself if it would be good for your company if your staff enjoyed all of them.

Mentoring has also been shown to reduce employee turnover. Consider these powerful results from a long-term study summarised in Entrepreneur magazine:

“Employee retention rates climbed 69 percent for the mentors and 72 percent for the mentees over the seven-year period of the study. The increased retention resulted in a savings of $6.7 billion in avoided staff turnover and replacement costs.”

And finally, mentoring makes companies more diverse, both by breaking down biases and by helping people who might otherwise lack the connections to advance in their careers. As Harvard Business Review reports:

“Mentoring programs make companies’ managerial echelons significantly more diverse: On average they boost the representation of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, by 9% to 24%.”

2. How to Get Started as a Mentor

Are you convinced yet? If so, you’ll probably want to know how to get started as a mentor. Let’s look at the steps involved in being a mentor at work.

1. Finding a Protégé 

Mentoring relationships are often initiated by protégés approaching their preferred mentors and asking for help. But if nobody’s approached you, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a mentor.

You could approach your human resources department, for example, saying that you’re keen to act as a mentor to another employee and asking if they know of anybody suitable. 

Or you could look for formal programs, either within your company or in the wider community, that seek to match up mentors with protégés. Or you could simply put the word out informally among your personal and professional networks. Someone is sure to know someone who would like to be mentored by you.  

2. Setting Expectations

A mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be very formal—in fact, mentoring often works best when it’s more like a friendship than a business arrangement.

So you don’t have to sign a formal mentoring agreement or anything like that. But it's a good idea to discuss what you both expect out of the relationship and make sure you’re both on the same page.

Agree on things like: 

  • how often you’ll meet and for how long
  • how you’ll communicate between meetings
  • what you both want to get out of the mentoring
  • any specific objectives or things the mentee needs help with

Note that if you’re part of a formal mentoring program, there may be other steps to take, and you may need to fill out paperwork and sign forms. The upside is that you’ll probably get more support in setting up the mentoring relationship and making it successful.

If you’re on your own, that success is entirely up to you, so take the time to think about the best way to set clear expectations and agree on a way forward that works for you both.

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Even with informal mentoring, take the time to set expectations up front. Image source: Envato Elements

3. How to Be a Good Business Mentor

Now let’s look at some best practices for mentoring in the workplace. How can you be most effective as a mentor?

1. Listen

Mentors are usually more experienced and more senior than their mentees, and it can be tempting to spend most of the time telling stories and dishing out advice. But it’s actually more important to listen.

Find out what your protégé really wants and what they’re struggling with. Ask penetrating questions and take the time to really hear the answers. This may take a conscious effort from both of you, since the tendency is often for the more senior person to dominate a discussion.

2. Be Honest and Supportive

When you've listened and understood what your protégé is trying to achieve, then you can start to give your advice.

As you do that, try to strike the right balance between being honest and being supportive. Both are good qualities, but not when taken to extremes. Nobody likes being criticised too harshly, but avoiding the truth in the name of uncritical positivity is no use either.

Try to find ways of being honest and telling harsh truths where necessary, without being hurtful. Showing someone a new way of looking at a problem, even if it’s not what they want to hear, is actually a great way of supporting them.

3. Be Generous

Mentoring is not simply a networking opportunity. It’s more about the advice and the personal connection. But as a mentor, you may also be in a position to help your protégé with things like connections and recommendations.

So be generous with that help if it’s asked for. If you can open doors for someone, why not do it? Also be generous with sharing your experiences and advice, even if that means making yourself vulnerable by sharing embarrassing stories that don’t put you in a good light. Those can be the most useful of all. 

4. Be There for the Hard Times

As a mentor, you want your protégé to be successful. But sometimes that won’t happen, and that’s when your support can be the most valuable.

Quentin Tarantino, for example, was mentored by British director Tony Scott from the early days of his career. But it was when he suffered his first major flop that he really benefited from Scott’s support and encouragement, at a time when he said he “felt like the planet earth had broken up with me.”

As we all know, Tarantino bounced back to enjoy a successful career, and he never forgot his mentor’s support. Follow Tony Scott’s approach, and be there for your protégé in good times and bad.

4. How to Find a Good Mentor

So far, we’ve been looking at things from the mentor’s point of view. But what if you’re the one looking for a mentor?

In that case, you’ll need to start by thinking about what you’re looking for in a mentor. Ask yourself:

  • Are there specific things you need advice or help on? 
  • Do you want general career advice or inspiration?
  • Are you looking for someone with useful connections who can open doors for you?
  • Does your ideal mentor need to be in your industry and know the details of your role, or could it be someone from a very different background?
  • More broadly, where do you want to go in your life and career, and what help do you need in getting there?

Once you’ve got an idea of what you need, start brainstorming people you could approach. Consider formal mentoring programs, either within your company or outside. But also think about people who know personally, friends of friends, or extended family.  

Then it’s time to approach your chosen person (or people). If you already have some kind of relationship, you could go straight in and hit them with a well-thought-out pitch about why you want them to mentor you. 

But if you’re starting cold, you may need to start smaller and build from there. Mentoring is a significant long-term commitment, and people are unlikely to take that risk on someone they don’t know at all. Look for opportunities to get to know them a bit, helping them out if you can. You could also start by respectfully asking for small pieces of advice, only formalising it into a mentoring relationship at a later stage.

You can find a lot more detail and practical advice about finding a mentor in this wonderful article by Lisa Hunter:

Get Started Being a Mentor at Work

As you’ve seen in this tutorial, mentoring is a wonderful thing to do, with tangible benefits for both parties involved, as well as for the organisation they work for.

Are you ready to get started with mentoring in the workplace? Why not put these lessons into practice and volunteer to mentor someone in your organisation?

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2019. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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