Mentoring conjures up images of students clutching diplomas so new the ink isn’t dry yet, but mentoring has a long and venerable history. Centuries before formal higher education became the norm, craftspeople learned their trade by the side of a mentor. Today, mentoring programs help new managers, junior executives, and others improve their leadership, communications, and management skills.
But mentoring isn’t just for junior executives. It’s also for senior-level executives and corporate leaders. Let’s face it: smart people never stop learning. Mentoring programs formalize that concept by pairing strong leaders together so that they can learn, grow, share, and profit from each other’s expertise.
Hallmarks of a Successful Mentoring Program
Successful mentoring programs follow specific guidelines that have proven to be successful. These guidelines include:
- Meet with your mentor in person: Although it’s tempting for busy executives to revert to telephone meetings, face-to-face meetings seem to be more effective for developing a relationship of trust and mutual support that’s essential for a good mentoring relationship. If you are time pressed (and who isn’t?), schedule coffee, breakfast, or lunch meetings with your mentor once a month. Block out the time on your calendar so that it’s as important as meetings with clients, auditors, and consultants.
- Determine areas of improvement: During your first meeting, determine several areas you’d like to work on together with your mentor. Limit your objectives to three; anything more than that can be difficult to accomplish, and anything less may be so easy you won’t take it as seriously as you should.
- Write an action plan: There’s something about writing out your goals, objectives, plans and commitments that make them seem more important than merely discussing them with your mentor. Write out a formal action plan and share it with your mentor for feedback. Establish both benchmarks and methods of measurement; how will you determine if you’ve successfully achieved your goals?
- Ask for homework: “Homework” in the terms of a mentoring agreement is a list of specific tasks to accomplish before your next meeting. As you meet, share, and reflect on your mentor’s feedback, he or she will provide you with things to do and consider in order to change your approach to problems. This is your homework. Write it down and commit to following through with it.
- Remain open to feedback: It can be tough for a strong leader or executive to receive feedback. Many leaders are successful people precisely because they are quite good at what they do. But, everyone has room for improvement. It can be difficult not to get defensive when you hear critical comments or suggestions to change how you approach a problem. This is precisely why you’ve agreed to a mentoring relationship with another executive, and it would serve you well to remain open to constructive feedback. A good mentor will sprinkle both praise and criticism in their feedback, but don’t tune out the criticism to bask in the praise!
- Be honest: Along with remaining open to criticism and feedback, it’s vital to cultivate an open, honest relationship with your mentor. If you are holding back on problems or stumbling blocks, your mentor can’t help you become more successful. Give and receive with an honest, open mind.
- Follow up: After the initial mentoring period is complete and you have achieved the milestones established in your action plan, set dates for follow-up sessions. You may wish to continue the mentoring relationship or conclude it, but either way, be sure to follow up with your mentor to share progress and achievements.
Finding a Mentor
Mentors are those with equal or greater experience than their mentees. For executives, it can be difficult to find a mentor within their own companies since they are usually at the top of the org chart and the problems they need to discuss may be those they share with other leaders in their organization. An outside perspective cannot be gained by constantly rehashing problems inside your organization. It becomes essential to find a mentor outside of your organization.
Many professional organizations provide mentoring programs. Ask within your own professional groups about mentorship. If they do not have such a group, consider starting one. You may also find mentors within your professional networks online or within civic organizations.
Mentoring isn’t limited to junior staff members. Executives can also benefit from a mentoring relationship. Learning never stops, and leaders never stop learning.
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