The Gift of Effective Mentoring

by Allison E. McWilliams

Great mentoring relationships are a gift. Effective mentors pour into our lives with wisdom, with opportunities, with feedback on our strengths and weaknesses, and they give us dedicated, safe space to take risks and to reflect on key learning moments. The truth is, none of us can be successful alone. We all need a support system to push us when needed, to lift us up when we inevitably stumble, and to cheer us on as we succeed. And, we don’t just need one mentor to do all of this for us, but a network of mentors, a team of people in our corner.

Allison E. McWilliams Director, Mentoring Resource Center Alumni Personal and Career Development

Allison E. McWilliams
Director, Mentoring Resource Center
Alumni Personal and Career Development

Why a network? Several reasons. First, effective mentors perform two critical functions. The first type of mentor performs career-related functions. These mentors help with socialization to a new organization or job function, give feedback on professional skill development, and help with career planning. The second type of mentor is the psychosocial mentor. This person helps the individual explore his or her identify, values, beliefs and how he or she is creating meaning in his or her life. As you can see, these are very different functions that easily could require multiple mentors. You might get lucky and find one person who can perform all of these roles, but it’s not likely.

As well, careers have changed, and it’s no longer common to stay at one organization for thirty years (or more) until retirement. Individuals are expected to take a more entrepreneurial mindset towards their own careers, seeking out developmental opportunities where they can. A diverse set of mentors will create more opportunities than a singular mentor can do alone. Additionally, a more diverse set of mentors provides a more diverse world view, creating greater opportunities for learning and for growth. Finally, a truly effective mentoring relationship is a deep investment of time and emotional resources. Having more than one mentor ensures that no one individual must carry the weight of that investment, alone. mentoring-resource-center-wfu

So where, and how, does one build his or her mentoring network? There are several key steps in this process:

  1. Get to know yourself. Spend some time reflecting on your strengths and opportunities for growth. What is it that you are missing? Before you ask anyone to invest their time in you, it’s important that you are clear on what your needs are.
  2. Set some goals. Once you have identified your needs, then set some clear developmental goals for yourself. How will these goals help you to meet those needs? What steps will you need to take to make them happen?
  3. Identify the individuals you currently know who can help you to accomplish those goals. Chances are, there already are several individuals in your network who can serve in this role for you. Be clear on what you are asking for: “I’m looking for someone to serve as a mentor to me as I take on a new project management role, and as someone who has successfully managed several projects, you clearly stood out to me as someone who would be a great fit. I would like to meet with you once a month for the duration of the project and share my goals, challenges, and successes, and seek out your feedback and wise counsel.”

Don’t get caught up in finding the “perfect” mentor; no such thing exists. The number one, hands-down, best qualification of someone to be your mentor is someone who is willing and able to invest the time in you. That’s it.

Finally, as a mentee, you build great mentoring relationships by doing several simple, but important things:

  • Keep your commitments. Show up when you say you will, on time and prepared.
  • Be willing to share and to listen. Mentoring is a two-way conversation.
  • Ask for feedback and resist the temptation to defend yourself.
  • Take ownership for your growth and development. A mentor is there to facilitate your growth and development, not do the work for you.

Developing great mentoring relationships is one of the most valuable steps we can take on our journey of occupational well-being. It is an investment in ourselves and others. It is, truly, a gift both given and received.