The art of being a mentor: Essential skills and traits
Mentors can be an important part of a career journey. Whether you’ve had one or not, eventually you get to a point in your career where you have enough knowledge and experience that you, too, could be a mentor. You don’t necessarily need to be a manager or a leader of a business to mentor a junior, all you need is someone who wants you as their mentor, time and willingness to help, plus a couple of traits and skills to help you along the way.
While this isn’t the be all and end all, we think great mentors exhibit some of the following qualities and skills – and the good news is that all of these can be learned if they’re not your strength.
Remember back to when you were a junior – how much did you know about your work and your industry? Probably not a lot, and the junior you’re mentoring is most likely the same. Take a breath and practice some patience if they ask you some pretty basic questions that you haven’t had to answer in years or if they’re just not quite getting a concept that you’re talking about. Everyone learns at different paces and learns in different ways, so be patient if your mentee just doesn’t quite get it straight away.
Positivity is the name of the game here, as mentees need a lot of encouragement and support. They’ve unsure of themselves and their skills, so some positive reinforcement goes a long way to making them feel confident and that they’re on the right track. Inspire them to go out and try new things, make mistakes, learn from said mistakes and do it better next time.
A growth mindset
If you’re not quite sure what a growth mindset is, it’s about believing your success depends on your time and effort that you put into it, rather than thinking “I’m bad at this and there’s no way I can get better at it, so what’s the point of trying?”.
Since they’ve seeked you out, the person you’re mentoring may already have a growth mindset, but if they don’t, you bringing one to the table will help you be a great mentor. Not only can you teach them about having a growth mindset and how to apply it to their career, but you can develop yourself and some of the skills you want to improve as well. It’s a win-win!
Moving on to some of the skills you need as a mentor. While there’s many that will help on your mentoring journey, if you’ve got these three, you’re on the right path.
There’s listening and then there’s active listening. Active listening is when you, as the listener, go beyond just hearing what someone has to say when they’re speaking. You’re present, focused and concentrating on what they’re saying (aka, you’re not distracted by what happened earlier that day or your growling stomach) and listening to them with all of your senses, not just your ears.
You may think this just sounds like regular ol’ listening, but trust us, it’s not. There’s a whole bunch of techniques that are involved in active listening, including:
- Using and noticing non-verbal cues
- Having good eye contact
- Repeating back what’s been said to you to show you understand what they’re saying
- Asking open ended questions, rather than yes/no questions to encourage further discussion
Why is this an important skill to being a mentor? By actively listening to your mentee, you’ll get a really in-depth understanding of what help and support they need from you to succeed. You’ll then be able to mentor them in a way that is impactful and helps them best progress their career and achieve their goals.
Ability to teach or instruct someone
Often when you’ve done something a million times before, it seems super simple and straightforward to you. It’s very easy to be bewildered when you’ve explained a concept or how to use a technology multiple times, but your mentee just doesn’t get how it works.
To avoid this situation, ask your mentee if they have a preference as to how they’re taught before you get too deep into the mentoring – they may learn better in a different style than you. Perhaps they need a video demo or they prefer reading a document versus being spoken to. Figure out how to adapt what you have to teach them to suit that learning style to get the most out of your sessions.
Ability to give honest and constructive feedback
Everyone loves a bit of positive feedback and as we mentioned before, mentees need lots of positivity and encouragement. But they also need feedback to be constructive – how will they know if they can do something better or to do something differently, unless you tell them?
It’s best to be honest, but you can do it in a way that isn’t damaging or hurtful. Here are a couple of tips to give honest and constructive feedback:
- Have a balance between positive and negative feedback, but start with the positive, “I really liked this, but this needs a bit more attention”.
- Explain why you’re giving the feedback. Don’t just say, “you need to do X”. Explain why X needs to be done and they’ll actually understand the theory behind the advice.
- Be clear and concise. Don’t waffle on for ages, as your feedback will get lost in the waffle. If it helps, write down a few dot points before the conversation to help keep you on track.
- Make sure you’re calm and in the moment. If you’re distracted or frustrated by something that’s going on at work or in your personal life, then you may unintentionally take it out on your mentee. Take a breath and think about what you want to say before delivering feedback.
If you’re keen to be a mentor, good news! We run a mentor program every year and it’s a great, low effort, way to dip your toe into the world of mentoring. Get in touch today at firstname.lastname@example.org.