How to Be a Mentor

Helping someone else ascend in their career can be deeply rewarding. Here’s how to do it well.

Published: Mar 21, 2023

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After a junior employee came to her for advice a few times, Charissa realized the casual coffees were turning into a mentorship relationship — and welcomed the opportunity. But she’d never been a mentor before and didn’t know how to be the most helpful. 

According to a CNBC survey, workers at practically every level (individual contributor, manager, senior manager, and vice president) are significantly less likely to consider quitting if they have a mentor. 

A mentor is a trusted person who gives advice and can talk about both work topics and personal topics with confidentiality. And developing a mentorship relationship is a choice on both sides. “Mentors can help more junior people navigate the complex culture of the workplace, including institutional knowledge, organizational dynamics and politics, and potential landmines,” says Sunny Levitt, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. 

But establishing a mentorship relationship isn’t always easy as the mentor; unless there’s a formalized program at your employer, you have to wait for the mentee to seek you out for advice.  

Below, our tips for being a good mentor. 

Mentors can help more junior people navigate the complex culture of the workplace, including institutional knowledge, organizational dynamics and politics, and potential landmines.

Define the relationship.

Potential mentors should assess their availability and motivation for wanting to mentor this particular person. Ask yourself: Do you see potential in them? Will mentorship be productive for them, for you, and for the team? 

Once it’s clear that someone is looking to you for advice and you feel prepared to be their mentor, career experts say to clarify with them that you are their mentor and make a commitment to spend periodic time with them.

"Cover their goals (what does the mentee hope to get out of the relationship?), mutual expectations (what does each party expect from the other to get the most from the experience?), and logistics (how often to meet, for how long, the best methods of contact, whether meeting agendas required, etc.),” says Tiffinee Swanson, a career coach and senior consultant at Korn Ferry Advance.  

Be their sponsor, too.

Mentorship and sponsorship aren’t the same thing. Sponsorship is related to mentorship, but it involves advocating for the other person. Sponsorship can help groups who are underrepresented in leadership ascend the ladder.  

“To turn your mentorship into sponsorship, advocate for your mentee even when they’re not in the room. Put their name forward for high-stakes assignments, and then mentor them through the experience so they can successfully navigate this challenge,” Swanson says.

Help them get where they want to be.

The mentee should drive the relationship and come to you with items to discuss, but often mentees don’t know what they don’t know. You can also proactively bring up important things that have helped you get to where you are: time management, work-life balance, career strategy, networking, development plan, resume, leadership skills, technical skills, barriers to growth, and more.  

The optimal time to give advice as a mentor is when the mentee brings an issue to you. “The caveat is if you see your mentee doing something that is actively positive — or negative — for their career,” Levitt says. Even then, it’s best to ask permission to offer advice or feedback. It can be helpful to frame the advice in terms of your own experience, sharing what you’ve done in the past that has worked, or missteps you’ve made that you can help them avoid. A big part of mentorship is helping the mentee shorten their learning curve and grow faster. 

Encourage your mentee to build a ‘board of directors.’

Everyone should have a personal ‘board of directors’ in their career that could be composed of a mentor, a manager, a sponsor, a coach, and more. These people are here to support us, challenge us, and tell us the truth. There’s some overlap to these roles, but it’s also good for people to have a variety of perspectives. For example, your mentee shouldn’t necessarily be your direct report. 

Encourage your mentee to seek out some coaching — where they’ll be asked powerful questions and come to their own conclusions about what to do — and help them understand what their boss’s role can be, too. 

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