by Sharon Florentine

6 tips for becoming a better mentor

Jan 31, 2020
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

Being a mentor can be a rewarding experience u2014 not just for those you are advising. IT leaders offer insights on how to establish strong, productive mentoring relationships.

intern mentor millennial internship interview women at desk with computer by fizkes getty images
Credit: fizkes / Getty Images

Becoming a mentor is a great way of paying forward your own hard-earned experience and knowledge, as well as any valuable advice and insights you yourself have been given along the way. Moreover, mentoring a promising professional can have a significant impact on their career prospects and pay. According to IDC’s Women in Technology Survey, workers who have a professional mentor make 10 percent to 17 percent more than those who don’t.

Providing constructive feedback or a fresh point of view, helping to navigate obstacles or to evaluate career options, building skills or development plans — there are a number of ways being a mentor can have a positive impact on those you’re advising. But what exactly makes a good mentor? Whether you’re just getting started or looking to improve your mentoring skills, here are some best practices to ensure your mentoring relationships are successful and productive.

Have a mentor yourself

Professionals who have mentors make better mentors themselves, says Melissa Di Donato, CEO of SUSE. Being on the receiving end of mentor advice greatly helps you understand not only what advice works but also how best to deliver what a mentee needs to hear. Not surprisingly, the broader your experience with being mentor, the more knowledge you have to draw on in establishing a strong mentor relationship with those you seek to help.

“The best mentors are the ones that have mentors themselves — and the more, the better,” Di Donato says. “You should have — and have had — a variety of mentors. I am a better mentor not just because of my own experience, but because I’ve been mentored myself and I’ve learned what was successful and what wasn’t, and I can take the lessons I learned and pass those along.”

Come prepared and document

Off-the-cuff advice with little follow-up makes for an inconsistent, and likely unproductive, mentoring relationship. Instead you should meticulously document the before, during and after of your mentoring sessions, both for yourself and for the people you mentor, Di Donato says.

“Prepare for sessions by focusing on a single topic or on a short list of topics to cover,” she says. “Then, when you’ve worked through those, at the end of the session, assign homework: at least three, but no more than five, questions for the person being mentored to consider for next time.”

You should also be noting how long sessions typically last, what works and what doesn’t, where you or the person you’re mentoring are getting stuck, and ways to overcome those obstacles, as well as the results of your advice and input.

It’s can also be beneficial to set schedules for sessions. Seventy percent of men meet daily or weekly with mentors, according to IDC’s Women in Technology survey, whereas only 29 percent of women meet with that frequency.

Mentor outside your comfort zone

Mentoring is all about soliciting, gathering and putting into practice the advice, input, thoughts and suggestions of someone whose perspective, experience and knowledge is, at least in some ways, different from your own. That means making a conscious effort to go outside your comfort zone.

Mentoring outside your own area of expertise is a good place to start, says Di Donato. For example, if you’re in sales, mentor someone in engineering, or vice versa. The difference in perspectives, knowledge and experience can allow for unique insights you might not have had otherwise.

Teena Piccione, global CIO and executive vice president of RTI International, advises looking for “opposites.”

“I look, for my own mentors, for those who are my foil — for example, someone who can tell me to slow down,” she says. “That can help if you’re an expert in one area and your mentee is in a different area.”

Give mentees the freedom to follow their own journeys

Mentoring is all about giving those you’re mentoring the freedom and space to better articulate their ideas, needs, and desires and to talk about their journey, Di Donato points out. Your role as a mentor is to give them that space and time, without dictating their direction for them, she says.

“Sometimes [mentees] just need to externalize their own thoughts and feelings. It’s better to give them the runway to think through their ideas,” she says. “You really don’t want to tell people what to do. A really good mentor gives ideas and insight so mentees can develop that route forward themselves. You’re not training them how to think. It’s more about giving them the room to figure things out themselves, and simply go on the journey with them.”

Mentor with diversity and inclusion in mind, always

Mentoring relationships are critical for diverse talent, especially in IT, says Di Donato, so make sure you’re mentoring people of different races, genders, sexes, sexual orientations, religions, ethnicities — the whole spectrum. Age, too; don’t always gravitate toward those who are younger than you.

“Mentors and mentees should be well-rounded and as diverse as can be,” she says. “One big mistake people make is only mentoring those from younger generations — and now we’ve got five generations in the workforce. If you’ve made it to this place in your career where you can offer others the benefit of your expertise, do so with an eye toward helping others who are different from you and pass along what you know.”

IDC’s Women in Technology survey noted that women were half as likely to believe in their executive management prospects, given equal experience and credentials to other candidates, in part because they see a “boy’s club” at work that results in a “lack of mentoring to learn the skills to get there.”

Solicit feedback

Feedback is a critical part of any mentoring relationship, and especially at first, any feedback you get it is going to be better than none, Di Donato says. This feedback doesn’t have to be constrained to the mentoring relationship. It can come from your own mentors, managers, or the human resources department as well.

“Any feedback is going to be good because it’s better than a big fat zero,” Di Donato says. “I always go to my own mentors and say, ‘Can you give me some feedback on this? I’m not sure if this is right or wrong.’ I also have an advocate in HR — this is a good relationship to develop, because they’re focused on employee growth, success, engagement and tenure, so they always want to ensure their employees are developing.”