Tips about mentoring

Over the last couple of years I’ve participated in a couple of formal mentoring programs, have introduced a couple of staff and colleagues to prospective mentors/mentees, and have several great colleagues who have been excellent sounding boards for me (and I hope they agree I’ve returned the favour).

From my experience, the great benefit of a mentor is that it’s someone who you can discuss issues and challenges in the workplace confidentially. As they are not an immediate colleague, manager or direct report they can be impartial. A good mentor will hold a mirror up to you, challenge you to think about things in new ways, and offer reassurance in response to crises of confidence and bouts of impostor syndrome.

Your mentor need not be from the same industry as you, although I found a mentor from the museums/cultural sector was a much better fit for me than a previous mentor who was from a general business background.

Here are a few more things I’ve learned:

Even CEOs have mentors

I had assumed that you only have a mentor when you are in the early stages of your career, or are eyeing the next rung up on the ladder. But it turns out I was wrong. No matter how far you’ve progressed in your career, it can still help to have a mentor. In fact, I can imagine that CEOs would particularly benefit from having someone out of their organization to confide in: it can be lonely at the top.

Mentors aren’t necessarily more experienced than you

Yes most mentor-mentee relationships will work like that, but reverse mentoring can also be beneficial, particularly as a way for a more senior leader to increase their technological savvy, or to better understand how they can foster diversity in the workplace.

Peer mentoring, where the mentor and mentee are similar in career stage, can also be useful. In this case who is the mentor and who is the mentee could be blurry, or it can change over time.

Is a mentor what you really need? Or is it a coach or a sponsor?

Unlike professional coaches, who usually work with you for a short time period in order to help you build a particular skill, mentors are a more general sounding board and source of advice. Sponsors are a more senior person who will advocate for you in getting new opportunities. It may be more difficult to be fully honest and vulnerable in front of a sponsor. This infographic helps summarise the difference between the three. But the lines between mentor, coach and sponsor are blurry; there are no hard and fast rules. The main thing is to be clear about what you’re trying to get out of the relationship.

Build a common understanding early – and if you can’t then move on

As well as you being clear about what you want to get out of the mentoring relationship, make sure you and your mentor/mentee are on the same page about this. Are you looking for personal development, or more general business advice? It can be frustrating if you feel that you and your mentor are speaking at cross purposes.

And it might be that you and your mentor/mentee don’t quite click, for all sorts of reasons. If this happens, it’s best for everyone if you acknowledge that you’re not seeing eye to eye, and politely move on. Don’t be discouraged from trying again if your first attempt doesn’t work out.

Mentors can be for a reason, a season, or a lifetime

Most formal mentoring programs I’ve encountered run for a period of 6-12 months. The end of the program may mean the end of the relationship, and mentor and mentee bid each other farewell. However, a formal program might just be the beginning of something that lasts for an entire career. Or it might ebb and flow over time.

Don’t be shy in seeking out a mentor

Formal mentoring programs are a great way to get introduced to a mentor if you don’t know where to start: you get matched with a person who has put their hand up to be a mentor, saving you having to search/research a suitable mentor and then having to approach them cold. But don’t let fear of rejection prevent you from asking someone to be a mentor: mentors often say they get as much out of the relationship as the mentee, and most prospective mentors will probably be delighted to be asked. If you do ask someone to be your mentor, remember the following:

  • It’s up to the mentee to drive the relationship, frequency of meeting, and so on.
  • Be prepared to listen and act on your mentor’s advice. Reflect on constructive criticism.
  • Don’t take it personally if someone declines to be your mentor. It could be that they are simply too busy. Also, don’t rule out the possibility that the prospective mentor has their own sense of impostor syndrome, and can’t imagine they could possibly be of use to you!


Postscript: I am one of the 2017-2018 cohort of an Executive Mentoring Program sponsored by the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, and facilitated by McCarthy Mentoring.