GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR BEING A GOOD MENTOR
By Amy Gannon
Over the years, I have provided some damn good coaching. Yes. I will own that. Just as I hope you own your talents and skills. The reason I say this is because for most of us our real superpowers just seem obvious. We take them for granted, which means we don’t always give ourselves credit OR allow ourselves to deploy those talents fully. So, as one mentee told me today, I need to take some of my own advice and claim my talent. Own it. Declare it. Share it.
In this blog post, I would like to share what entrepreneurs, business professionals, students, and family members have said makes my approach effective. I share these ideas for consideration as you develop your own unique style of mentoring. Here are five of my guiding principles:
- Listen, discover, learn
- Meet people where they are cognitively AND emotionally
- Recognize you don’t know everything…and that’s okay
- Praise people for their strengths and don’t punish them for their weaknesses
- Take a systems approach
In essence, these principles are about building trust. Trust is built through mutual vulnerability and mutual respect. Trust is NOT built on expectations of perfection.
# 1 Listen, discover and learn
Our number one priority as mentors is to listen. We have the opportunity, and responsibility, to discover who the mentee is, what her journey has been, and what she is hoping to achieve. Her voice is the most important voice in the conversation. This doesn’t mean we are silent. On the contrary, good listeners ask questions, repeat back what we think we heard, and share some our own experiences. We do this as a means of achieving more clarity. Together with our mentee, we are searching for the meaning behind the words.
- Let me just share what I think I heard you say. I want to make sure I am tracking with you…
- When you say _____, what do you mean by that?
- You know, something similar happened to me the other day and this is what I thought/felt. Is it the same for you, or something different?
- Wait. I am a little confused. Can we back up a minute? I might have missed something.
#2 Meet people where they are cognitively AND emotionally
Life is both a cognitive and emotional journey. Our experience and our behavior is not just driven by what we think, but also what we feel. Often, our mentee is stepping outside her comfort zone and trying new things. She is on a rollercoaster ride with highs and lows. She is going to have moments when she is feeling uncomfortable, uncertain, confused, excited, thrilled, frustrated, exhausted, etc. And, sometimes all of those emotions at the same time. As mentors, we can create space where we recognize, value, explore…and normalize the ride. To be of most service, we try to meet her where she is without judgment. This means being open and adaptable. Together, we set the agenda for the conversation, but her needs in that moment matter most.
- What do you want talk about today?
- It’s okay. Just tell me what's going on. We’ll figure it out together.
- You know what, we can worry about _____ later. This seems important to you right now. We can focus on that, if you want.
- Wait! What? We totally need to celebrate that right now!
- Damn. That really sucks.
- I’m on my way. Let’s get lunch. Or, would you prefer drinks?
#3 Recognize you don’t know everything…and that’s okay
As mentors, we sometimes feel the pressure to have all the answers and/or to fix things for our mentees. This is NOT what quality mentoring is about. Our job is to explore options and offer suggestions, not to give directives. We aren’t there to tell her what she “should” do. We bring our perspectives and experiences to the conversation as data for consideration. Our support shouldn’t be contingent on our mentee following our advice. Good mentoring means knowing the difference between an invitation to consider an option and an expectation of complying with it. In the end, it’s her life and her career and her family. She will make decisions that are best for her.
- Let’s think through how we could approach this…
- From my own experience, this is how I think about these situations…
- Given what we’ve talked about today, I would invite you to consider…
- I am not sure, what are you thinking…
- These are some ideas, but you know I support whatever you decide…
#4 Praise people for their strengths and don’t punish them for their weaknesses
People are beautifully and permanently imperfect human beings. We entered the world this way and will leave it this way. Our role as mentors is to create space where people can be themselves (and discover themselves). We often become emotionally invested in our mentees and their future. Sometimes, this leads us to prioritize OUR hopes and dreams for her. It is not our mentee’s job to be the person we want or need her to be. It is her job to be the person she wants to be. As mentors, we strive to honor and celebrate our mentee’s strengths (not be jealous and minimize) and recognize and accept her weaknesses (not be angry or judge). And, by the way, we model this by granting ourselves the same grace.
- You know…there are things I am pretty good at and some things I am really NOT good at…You do ______ really well!
- From where I sit, I think that is a strength we can really build on…
- So what. You’re not good at ______. That just means we’ll have to find another way of addressing it. That doesn’t mean you aren’t a competent person (or founder).
- Yes, you can do this. Why not you?
- That person’s perspective is hers — it doesn’t have to be yours.
#5 Take a Systems Approach
Each of us has our own journey and what we experience in this world is not always what others experience. Hopefully, we all have the opportunity to mentor people who are different from us in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, family status, etc. These differences shape how the broader culture sees and interacts with us in ways that we don’t always understand. The approach or behavior that works for us may generate a completely different reaction when our mentee tries it. To be of service to our mentees, we need to recognize the social, cultural, historical and economic systems in which we all operate and develop a level of comfort in exploring that impact.
- I know racial differences shape our experiences in the world. I want you to know that I am open to talking about that with you and learning more about how our experiences differ…
- I am not sure about your experience, but this is how I see things as a White woman…
- There may be a generational difference going on here. Can we explore that?
- You know, I never even noticed that before, but I can see how it would play out differently…
- Please feel free to tell me if I say something that is uninformed or hurtful. I am trying but I am imperfect. I appreciate the gift of feedback…
In summary, being a good mentor starts with honoring and respecting yourself as an amazing and powerful person because of your limitations and imperfections, not despite them. As you strive to do this for yourself, you can create the space for you and your mentee to do this together. Being a good mentor isn’t about being perfect. It is about being present.