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Mentor-mentee relationships come in all shapes and sizes. There are company-driven programs that pair new hires with experienced employees, as well as personally driven arrangements where mentees seek out a mentor they believe will enable success.
Related: Looking for a Mentor? The 7 Best Places to Start.
These relationships can be looked at from both sides of the relationship: For mentorship to be effective, mentees must know what to look for in a mentor, while mentors must hold themselves accountable to the effort they’ve promised to their mentees.
Among these relationships are mentorships that have led to success . . . as well as those that resulted in frustration and wasted time.
To minimize those unfortunate outcomes, look for the following six factors that set great mentors apart.
1. Great mentors take action.
According to Val DiFebo, writing for Fortune magazine:
“Good mentors should believe in their mentees enough to take risks for them. That means introducing them to people who could be helpful to their careers, passing on their resumes to your contact at a company they’re interested in, letting them shadow or attend meetings with you or pointing them toward a conference or program that could enrich their careers.”
Takeaway: It’s easy to talk a good game in mentorship. But it’s the mentors who follow through with actual action that stand apart from those willing to offer advice alone.
2. Great mentors present challenges.
Great mentors invest in the success of their mentees and, often, that means pushing them beyond their expectations. An article from Kauffman Entrepreneurs ties this one back to one of pop culture’s greatest examples of mentorship, the Star Wars character, Yoda:
“Yoda sets out one challenge after another for Luke to help Luke manage himself better, hone his skills and more fully appreciate his responsibilities to use The Force for good.”
Takeaway: If you’re a mentor, be like Yoda. Always expect more from your mentees. They may not know what they’re capable of otherwise.
3. Great mentors don’t sugarcoat their failings.
When you’re in a mentorship role, it can be tempting to be the “all-knowing, all-powerful” being your mentee sees you as. And who among us hasn’t wanted to gloss over some of the more embarrassing mistakes we’ve made in the past?
Related: Find a Business Mentor — or Fail Trying
Don’t do it. Sugarcoating your failings does a disservice to your mentee, who will likely encounter many of the same challenges that led to your mistakes. Yes, it’s hard to admit failure. But if you’ve learned from your mistakes (and I hope you have), give your mentees the benefit of that wisdom as well.
4. Great mentors have the experience their mentees want.
On the surface, this one probably seems obvious. But where I think many mentees go wrong is looking at this in a general sense, rather than focusing on the specifics.
Say you want to be the next junior partner at your law firm. If that’s the case, the best mentor for you could be an existing junior partner who recently won that promotion. Certainly, more senior members of the firm will have valuable wisdom to share, but they may be too far removed from the process to offer tactical insight.
5. Great mentors are “emotionally intelligent.”
Let’s face it: We aren’t all emotionally intelligent people. Emotional intelligence requires being open-minded and inquisitive, listening well and reading body language correctly. Mentors who don’t have these skills risk doing a disservice to their mentees.
Takeaway: Wagepoint’s Epic Guide to Employee Management sums it up this way: “A mentor who is emotionally intelligent possesses the skills to control his or her own emotions, as well as the ability to empathize with others. An emotionally intelligent mentor is also able to handle interpersonal relationships prudently and calmly.”
6. Great mentors say no.
Especially in forced mentorship situations, mentors may find it difficult to set boundaries. But in all circumstances, it’s the ability to say no that makes a mentor truly effective.
Great mentors may say no in each of the following scenarios (as well as others):
- Making an introduction that the mentee isn’t prepared for
- Requests mentors don’t have time to accommodate
- Requests mentors know they won’t follow through on
Again, saying no (instead of “maybe”) isn’t always comfortable. Just as with sugarcoating past failings, saying no is a skill that requires time and wisdom to cultivate. Without it, both mentors and mentees risk winding up unhappy with the relationship and what they each get out of it.
Related: Top 3 Traits of a Good Mentor
Ultimately, good mentorships exist for the benefit of both parties. Whether you’re thinking about becoming a mentor, find yourself in the position already or are actively seeking professional guidance, use these six factors as a guide to building positive mentor-mentee relationships.