When you hear the word mentor, you might recall the dynamic professor who took you under her wing during Biology 101 and consequently laid the course for your career, or a champion boss who always made sure you were up for promotions. You probably want to play that role in someone’s life, too.
There are so many ways to do it. Mentorship isn’t just about advancing the next generation through the ranks; it transcends age and experience levels. As a reporter who focuses on workplace issues, I interview mentors quite a bit. I’ve also been one myself, at work and in organizations like Big Brother Big Sisters.
You shouldn’t expect people to listen to your words if your ongoing example contradicts them, so consider how you behave when you think nobody’s watching. They are.
Here are some takeaways from the front lines.
Lead by example, not by rhetoric. You can’t spout off about how to behave and then do the opposite if you hope to earn respect. A leader I admire once told me, “Words impact; actions resonate.” The best mentors I’ve profiled believe in a corporate culture of support and integrity, and they put those tenets into practice with workplace policies that mirror their values, every day. You shouldn’t expect people to listen to your words if your ongoing example contradicts them, so consider how you behave in average moments when you think nobody’s watching. They are.
Be fluid and approachable. You never know when a teaching moment might happen. Don’t wait to infuse leadership tips into scheduled meetings or presentations. Look for small chances to share lessons, like when someone’s working late and you might be able to lend a hand, or when a coworker is struggling with a project and you’ve been there, done that.
Practice humility. A lot was accomplished before you were born. If someone comes to you for advice, sure, be flattered. Help them. But think about what you might learn, too. Ask your mentee for advice next time around, even if they’re younger or have less professional experience. Life lessons happen at every age
Go the extra mile. Mentorship is a way of life, not a one-off favor. Follow up with someone you’ve helped. Ask if they landed that dream job. Inquire how their career is going. The best mentors create a web of caring by checking in every now and again.
Be a connector. Share your wisdom, but also share your contacts. Both are valuable.
Reveal your flaws. Nobody’s perfect, not even you. Humanize yourself. Share times that you’ve screwed up. This disarms people and makes them more likely to listen to your advice—because they know it comes from a real place, not a script.
See the whole person. Does your employee run marathons? Chances are that runner is disciplined and structured. Think about projects that play to these strengths. Does your colleague paint on weekends? Nurture that creative side with a request that involves thinking outside the box. People are more than their professional ambitions. The best mentors think holistically and guide their protégés accordingly, because it’s a big world beyond the office.