According to the dictionary, a mentor is “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced person”. What it doesn’t say is that mentoring can be a life-changing relationship, one that can be rewarding and enriching for both mentor and mentee.
A good mentor empowers rather than solves. She’s not there to tell you what you must or mustn’t do. Her job is to help fill the gaps in your knowledge and skills. She has learned a few lessons – sometimes the hard way – and wants to share them with you. While she may not have all the answers, she does have her own perspective on your challenges and opportunities.
A good mentor should be a good listener. He may know lots more about his business or profession, but he should still be willing to really listen to you. If he doesn’t appreciate your abilities and aspirations, his insights won’t resonate with you, the mentee.
The mentor’s role is to tell you about his experiences. That doesn’t mean simply sharing war stories. It means relating the details behind the stories – the lucky breaks, the advice offered and taken, the networking and relationship-building. He may be highly accomplished in his field, but it takes some self-reflection to recognize everything that went into making that possible.
It’s important to remember, however, that the mentor isn’t doing all the work. The mentee has her own role to play. First and foremost, she must respect that the mentor is giving up her precious time to share her wisdom and experience. She must also respect her mentor’s greater experience.
That’s why it’s important for you, the mentee, to come prepared with questions and feedback. If you have a problem or have encountered an obstacle, tell your mentor. He’s not a mind reader, and he won’t know about the bumps in your road unless you tell him about them.
That means talking about your mistakes and missteps, which can take you out of your comfort zone. Just remember – your mentor has likely made the same mistakes and can tell you where you went wrong. Your mentor genuinely wants to help, and her constructive criticism will help you become a better entrepreneur or professional.
That doesn’t mean blindly following your mentor’s advice. It’s your business or career, and you have to exercise your own judgement. Nevertheless, try to stay open and flexible. Your mentor is there to challenge you, and you’ll learn a great deal if you take her advice in the spirit that it’s offered.
Keep in mind that a good mentor-mentee relationship works both ways. The mentee benefits from his mentor’s hard-earned wisdom. But the mentor benefits too. He’s enhancing his leadership abilities, and may gain new insights into his own career by looking back on past experiences. Reflecting on how many people helped pave the way to your success can lead to a little humility, which never hurts!
When the mentor and mentee start working together it’s essential that they set and respect boundaries. Focus on professional challenges; find ways to overcome them; end each meeting with clear and positive actions. You only get out of the relationship what you put into it. And if you realize that it’s not working out, be honest enough to know when it’s time to call it a day.
ACCESS Community Capital Fund has plenty of experience in bringing mentors and mentees together. Would you like to learn from someone who’s been down the same road you’re travelling? Looking to help someone launch their business or career? Let us know – we’ll connect you with the right person.
Neil Macdonald is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has worked in the not-for-profit field for several years, and provides marketing and communications support to small businesses. Neil has been a volunteer with ACCESS since 2015.