Tips for optimizing mentor relationships

You probably had a mentor at some point in your career. If you run a small business, you may have one now. Someone you turn to for advice. Or a trusted sounding board. And while the benefits of having a mentor involve soaking up knowledge from someone more experienced, the benefits of being a mentor include acquiring and sharing knowledge.

Helping someone get started in your business—whether it’s an employee or a colleague outside your company, is an excellent way to build lasting relationships. It gives you insights into the lives and challenges of people you might not otherwise interact with. It’s a perfect forum for shaping the future of your company and possibly a small segment of your industry. At a minimum, it’s a kindness you can pass along.

In large companies, HR often rolls out highly structured mentorship programs that leave participants feeling burdened and uninspired. In a small business environment, however, you can be more nimble. You have the flexibility to structure the concept to fit your needs more closely. And you’ll get more out of it.

To optimize your relationship with a current or future mentee consider these tips:

  • Agree on broad goals. You might both jot down a few goals after your first meeting, then hear each other out during your second. This encourages engagement and lets you work on a project together at the outset: a framework for your mentorship.
  • Don’t confuse a mentee with an intern. Though a mentee is typically at a more junior level than your own (or has less longevity with the company), you have a lot in common. You both chose to work in the same industry, usually for the same company, and share some degree of base knowledge. In contrast, an intern is usually a student, not yet full-time employed, seeking to gain practical experience within an educational framework.
  • Be attuned to your mentee’s career goals. Your career may have routed you through sales and marketing; your mentee might be coming up through the ranks of the technical or manufacturing department. While it’s always beneficial to learn from the experiences of people in dissimilar job functions, you’ll also want to focus on what areas you have in common. How do your respective job functions interrelate?
  • Be mindful that your mentee has a boss. So avoid giving the kind of advice that might conflict with the way the mentee’s boss is running the department.
  • Never offer unconditional confidentiality unless you’re prepared to honor it. You’re not the mentee’s priest, bartender or doctor. If you sense the conversation veering toward a problematic topic, rein it in beforehand. “I may not be the best person for you to explore this topic with.”
  • Model the kinds of questions you want to hear. To encourage your mentee to inquire more about a particular area of your expertise, ask your mentee specific questions about theirs.
  • Pre-schedule meetings at regular intervals. Get it on both your calendars, so there’s less chance your next meeting will keep getting pushed back. If possible, you may want to vary the locations of your meetings to add variety and interest and take any power imbalance out of the equation.
  • Explore perceptions. How did each of you perceive the other before your mentorship started? Ask and answer candidly. Because it’s a delicate subject, this discussion can also reveal the extent of your mentee’s communication skills.

The most successful mentorships continue over years. Often they continue even after one or both participants leave the company. For more on managing in a small business environment, and the financing options that help you grow your business, contact our professionals at (877) 204-9203.