Column | Leadership

Jill Geisler: Do you have what it takes to be a first-class mentor?

Column | Leadership

Jill Geisler: Do you have what it takes to be a first-class mentor?


Headshot of Jill Geisler

Jill Geisler

Mentoring can be beneficial for both mentees and mentors. It can also help foster a more diverse and inclusive organization. Even so, it’s important to consider whether you’ve got what it takes to be successful before entering into such a relationship.

Ask people about the mentors in their lives, and you’ll discover that they come in many  varieties. A boss who took special interest in employee growth. A teacher or professor who kept in touch over the years and offered encouragement. An experienced, talented colleague who saw employee potential and offered some important tips. A professional who graciously replied to a request for advice from someone in their field.

Those are the good stories.

There are also not-such-great tales of mentorship failures. Relationships that never materialized. Would-be mentors who just told stories about their own careers, with little focus on the specific needs of others. Dropped appointments. Lack of focus. Worse yet, sexual harassers disguised as mentors. Or powerful people whose mentoring hurt rather than helped diversify the organization, because they selected mentees who reminded them of themselves.

Since you’re reading this column, it’s clear that you want your mentorship efforts to be a genuine success story. Get started by asking yourself eight questions.

1. Is this a formal or an informal mentoring arrangement?

Many organizations encourage mentoring, and that’s good. But do they have a good process that supports it? In a formal program, mentor/mentee pairings are done with care. There’s training for potential mentors, and there may be projects for the mentee to undertake in collaboration with their boss and their mentor. Mentees are asked to evaluate the program, and there is tracking to determine the impact in the organization. That takes significant resources.

2. If your organization lacks a formal program, are you willing and able to go it alone?

Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. If your organization doesn’t have a mentoring infrastructure, you’ll need to build it yourself. Many individuals elect to become mentors on their own. Just be a good one. Be prepared to learn, to commit and to constantly assess how things are going.

3. How will you choose your mentees?

Here’s your opportunity to align your values with your volunteering. If you’re dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion, it will be evident in your mentoring choices. Don’t focus only on those who reach out to you for mentorship. If you have high status in your organization, you may not realize how intimidating it can be for some folks to approach you for professional guidance. You might miss people who presume they can’t or shouldn’t — or introverts who aren’t as apt to knock on your door as the extroverts.

4. What should all parties expect from this mentoring adventure?

It’s helpful to create a “mentoring compact” right from the start. What does the mentee need most? What are your shared goals? What will we prioritize? Craft skills? People skills? Learning more about navigating the organization and the industry? Will you review the person’s work? Assign any homework? How often will you meet? What level of confidentiality, if any, should be involved? How will you let each other know if things are working well or could be better?

5. How good are you at coaching?

The best mentors understand the power of helping people discover their own good ideas and solutions. To do that, they must be good listeners — very good listeners. They need to ask lots of questions, not deliver lectures. They need emotional intelligence to see the world through the eyes of the other person. It doesn’t mean you never talk about yourself — especially if you share how you learned from your mistakes — but your story is secondary to theirs.

6. How good are you at challenging?

It’s easy to be a cheerleader. But mentors who coach also have to be clear-eyed and candid about their mentees’ gaps in skills or experience. Can you talk to someone about a weakness or mistake in a way that doesn’t sugar-coat it, but addresses it with both truthfulness and support? Do you know how to deal with defensiveness, so you don’t give up on your mentee if tension surfaces?

7. Are you willing to be more than a mentor and serve as a sponsor?

Mentors help people grow. Sponsors knock on doors for them. They find opportunities to put them in the spotlight. Sponsors put their own reputation on the line to recommend them for jobs and promotions. History tells us that men have traditionally been more likely to sponsor men than women. But times are changing.

8. Will you know when it’s time to re-tool your relationship?

In the best-case scenario, your mentee has flourished, thanks to their efforts and your support. You stay in touch, but less frequently. You graduate from Yoda and Luke Skywalker to friendly colleagues.

I always teach that the most important thing leaders do is help others succeed. If you want proof of that, think about any retirement celebration you’ve attended. The most heartwarming tributes inevitably come from a those who say, “I’m here today because of my mentor.”

You, too, can be a first-class mentor. Ask yourself the questions above and then combine your good will with some good skills. You do have what it takes.

About the Author

Jill Geisler

is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago, and a Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women's Leadership.


Do you have questions or topics you'd like Jill to address in a future article? Email Crystal Milazzo, HFMA senior editor.

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