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Mentoring? Make it a partnership

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Picking protégés is like investing, say two psychology professors from the Naval Academy and Indiana University. You choose carefully because you have limited resources and want a decent return.

Before you commit to mentoring, learn what you can about your potential protégés, work with them informally and get to know them better.

After you’ve settled on someone:

Expect nothing less than excellence. The authors present the story of a graduate student whose mentor set as a condition of the mentorship that the student’s work must be well conceived and executed. When the product fell short, his mentor said: “Cliff, I’m not here to do mediocre work and neither are you. This work is not indicative of the scholar I know you to be. Try it again.”

Protect them, if necessary. A first-year medical resident, Dr. Emily Myers came under the wing of Dr. Maria Chavez, a senior member of the staff. Outstanding as a physician, Myers nonetheless lacked polish and the faculty often mocked her behind her back. During a meeting, several faculty members began imitating her tics. Calmly but sternly, Chavez said: “The last time I checked, gentlemen, fashionable dress and social grace were not evaluation criteria in our residency. Dr. Myers is one of my most promising residents. I hope that in the future, you will limit your comments to relevant concerns.”

Show your unconditional regard.
Especially when they stumble, demonstrate your support and acceptance.

Don’t expect perfection. As high as your standards may be, remember that many up-and-comers feel like imposters who have to achieve an impossible standard to succeed. Tell them: “I know you’re trying to do good work here, and you are. But perfection is unattainable."

Close the association gracefully.
Sometimes, one party in the mentorship moves on. Unfortunately, many such relationships end with unfinished business. It’s important to close on a positive note. Say goodbye to your protégé and acknowledge the end of the mentorship in a specific meeting meant for that purpose. Give your protégé your reading of the mentorship, including your appreciation for the insights you received and lessons you learned.

— Adapted from The Elements of Mentoring, W. Brad Johnson, Charles R. Ridley, Palgrave Macmillan.

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