How to Develop an Effective Mentoring Relationship

When asked to account for their success, most business leaders cite the importance of having had a mentor at critical points in their careers. Mentoring programs have become more prevalent within organizations during the last decade. Organizations have implemented mentoring programs to assist with a variety of efforts, including retaining and promoting targeted groups of employees; facilitating career development; supporting diversity; developing executive talent; and strengthening senior executives’ interpersonal skills.

Mentoring helps to demystify organizations and helps younger people understand how to be effective in a given environment. The benefits extend beyond the “protégés” participating in the program to mentors and the organization at large. Historically, mentoring has involved senior managers targeting promising individuals, grooming them for more senior-level responsibilities. Because this approach relied upon personal relationships, certain groups particularly African Americans and women often were frozen out of such opportunities. In an effort to level the playing field, many companies are implementing formal mentoring programs and requiring classroom training for program participants.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to mentoring. Group mentoring or “learning circles” are particularly useful when the number of mentors within an organization is limited. And a growing number of organizations are implementing mentoring efforts that leverage the perspective and expertise of middle managers, peers and subordinates, as well as executives from other organizations.

The Role of a Mentor

Suzanne Daniels and Cheryl Richardson crossed paths more than 10 years ago while working at a small consulting firm in Chicago. Both women have MBAs, have been on the fast track in a variety of industry settings and have managed their own businesses. During the time they worked together, they bonded and shared perspective on the challenges and opportunities in the workplace. They became friends and advisers to one another. Today, they have followed separate trails, but they speak fondly of their work experience together as well as the impact that other mentors have had on their careers.

Daniels describes a mentor as someone who can provide advice and counsel to guide you and help you to understand the industry – someone who can show you how to approach decision-making on both professional and personal issues. “What I liked was that my mentor wasn’t telling me what to do, but was giving me enough information so that I could solve problems on my own. … In one setting, my mentor and I were both new to government. I would go to him with a challenge. He would then give me the issues and ramifications associated with certain actions. He taught me to be independent in thought versus having to depend on him.

Mentors can help in many other ways. The mentor can be someone who listens to a protégé’s challenges and frustrations, and be a sounding board for ideas for action. A mentor can serve as a resource for coaching in your current role or future role. In this way, mentors provide feedback to help protégés identify effective ways to address various work-related challenges.

“I’ve mentored one of my peers, who has subsequently become a close friend,” Daniels says. “I’ve coached her on a variety of things, including how to spruce up her image, dress with a bit more polish and focus on her grammar so that she would be viewed more credibly within her organization.”

Many people look to mentors as a safe haven for risky conversations. The mentor can be a confidante for discussions that the protégés may feel uncomfortable raising with his manager or teammates (such as doubts about performance and relationship challenges).Mentors are often a source of inspiration and affirmation. Mentors validate when the protégés is demonstrating effective behaviors or accurately deciphering subtleties of the culture. They also encourage protégés to follow-up on good ideas and strategies. Richardson provides testimony to the personal gratification that this can bring. “I have tried to mentor people who work for me in my promotions business. I typically hire assistants from the local junior college…and inevitably lose them. They tell me that I am always pushing them to do more to better themselves. They see what I am doing in my business and become inspired to go back to school. One is already graduating this year from the University of Phoenix.”

Finding the Right Mentor for You

A major challenge for African-American professionals is finding visible role models who “look like us.” Thus, it is important not to become too hung up on finding a mentor who is of the same race and/or gender. It is more important to look for the specific qualities you would like your mentor to have. In many cases your search will extend outside of your particular business unit and, depending on your level or discipline, it may even extend outside of your organization. “Most of my mentors have been women, but there were much dissimilarity in our backgrounds,” Richardson says. “My mentor at Price Waterhouse was White, Jewish and came from a very affluent background. I, on the other hand, am Black, Christian and was raised in a middle-class environment. “I was not looking for similarities. The good thing about being different from your mentor is that you learn to look at and appreciate things from a different perspective.” Whom you would seek as a mentor hinges heavily upon what you want to get out of the relationship. A good first step would be to conduct an analysis of your own needs and interests. Create a personal action plan that has the following components: career and personal objectives, strengths, and areas for development.

Your personal action plan will help you fine-tune your search for a mentor around specific business skills, or functions within the organization. Some of the more general characteristics to look for in a mentor include strong interpersonal skills; for example, someone who is a good communicator, an active listener, and has developed relationships with individuals from diverse backgrounds. You would also want to identify someone with a well-rounded and informed perspective of the organization or industry. Your search for a mentor can be aided by seeking information from others. If you are not involved in a formal mentoring program, talk with career counselors or co-workers about your interest in finding a mentor. Use your observation skills. Which individuals within your organization or industry are viewed as successful? Set up a breakfast or lunch meeting with a few of these people to introduce yourself or ask someone who is a bit closer to them to include you in a lunch. Follow up with the prospect that most closely matches your objectives and ask them if they wouldn’t mind chatting with you periodically to help you gain a better sense of the business. You do not necessarily have to articulate that you are looking for a mentor. For some individuals, this may create undue pressure about their level of accountability. “My mentors were people I worked directly for, and it just kind of happened,” Richardson says. “We never used the word mentor in our one-on-one relationship, but when I speak about these individuals, I refer to them as mentors. These were bosses who not only gave me assignments, but who coached me on the most effective way to go about doing work. I also learned a lot from certain individuals by observation. I would determine what I wanted to emulate and what I did not.” Your need for a mentor will not necessarily end once you strike out on your own. In fact, mentoring may be very valuable at that point. Richardson, who has worked in the consulting arena and a major consumer goods conglomerate, is now running her own promotions business. “I would love to have a mentor right now, as I am challenged with various issues that come with running and developing my company. My ideal mentor would be someone who knows me, but is removed from the business – someone who can lend insight on what I might have done to be more effective in different situations.”

Stages of the Mentoring Relationship

Your relationship with your mentor will evolve in a series of stages roughly approximating these:

Initiation – In the beginning of your mentoring relationship, you are becoming acquainted with your mentor. The comfort level may not be very high, especially if there are significant differences in your styles. But keep an open mind.

Definition – You should take initiative during the first couple of meetings to jointly establish objectives with your mentor. This is the time to define how the relationship will be structured – how often to meet, where, who will schedule meetings. Confidentiality is at the core of all mentoring relationships. The mentor as well as the protégé may share information in confidence. You may want to establish the confidentiality parameters at the beginning of the relationship or indicate when you are discussing issues that you would like the mentor to keep in confidence.

Cultivation – Give your relationship at least one to three months to develop rapport and trust. “In mentoring relationships, it is important to spend time getting to know each other personally, so that you can begin to trust each other,” Richardson says. “If I did not trust my mentor, I would not be able to appreciate the advice they gave me and I would not want to emulate them.”

Evaluation – Throughout the relationship, you and your mentor should be observing and reflecting on the quality of the mentoring experience. Provide feedback to each other in areas where you think the relationship can be better leveraged (i.e. frequency of meetings, introductions to others).

Transition/Redefinition – Many structured mentoring relationships endure anywhere between 6 and 18 months. Even though letting go may be somewhat uncomfortable, separation is a healthy aspect of the mentoring relationship.

The end of mentoring does not necessarily mean the end of the relationship with your mentor. “My mentor and I are still very good friends after 17 years,” Daniels says. “We still have a relationship, but the dynamic has changed. You have to break the umbilical cord at some point, because if you don’t, it does not help you to grow.”

Mentoring Protocol

As both Daniels and Richardson can attest, what you can and cannot do depends on your professional relationship with your mentor. If your mentor happens to be your boss, remember that you still have a job to do. Don’t ask for any slack or special consideration just because you happen to be in a mentoring relationship.

  • Follow through! As a protégé you are responsible for sharing, seeking, asking, evaluating and managing the relationship. Many mentoring relationships fail because of lack of follow-through on part of the mentor or the protégé. Meeting regularly with your mentor (i.e. once or twice a month) will help your relationship grow and facilitate the trust-building you will need to feel secure in reaching out and/or discussing sensitive issues. It may be challenging, at times, to get on your mentor’s schedule, but don’t give up.
  • Be on time for meetings that are scheduled or make sure you call ahead if you know you are going to be a bit late. Your mentor’s world does not revolve around you.
  • Avoid dropping by unannounced. Even if you have a pressing problem, call your mentor to set up an appointment first. If scheduling or distances are issues, use e-mail and teleconferences to regularly communicate with your mentor. Don’t always wait until you have a problem to call your mentor. Share some of your successes as well, especially if you applied some advice your mentor gave you.
  • Let your mentor know how much you appreciate them. A word or note from you might be just the rights “pick me up” for the day. Having a mentor does not automatically come with a guarantee of advancement. While a mentor may be able to give you sound career advice or put in a good word for you, don’t hold them responsible for your career growth.
  • Don’t get caught up in your mentor’s shadow. Your mentor may be someone who brought you on board and has since left the organization. A true test for you will be whether or not you can remain with the organization and be viewed as a credible team player. It is important to remember that mentoring is not a substitute for developing a good relationship with your manager. Professionals need to put energy into building relationships with many individuals within the organization in order to gain credibility and leverage.

Participating in a mentoring relationship can provide you with a sense of comfort, confidence, and purpose that you can pass on to others. The more African-American professionals can be the benefactors of career enhancement efforts like mentoring, the more we can become visible role models for others to follow. Being a protégé today will help prepare you for mentoring others down the road.