Live and learn

Oct 03, 2016

Mentorships are supposed to be two-way streets, so when you consider your program, make sure you make the right connections.

The mentoring partnership is an agreement between two people to share experiences and expertise to help with the personal and professional growth of the person being mentored.

Though supervisors obviously mentor their supervisees, this is not what we’re talking about here. In a formal mentorship program, the pairings are outside of the traditional supervisory relationship so that the employee is assured that whatever s/he brings up will not affect her or his performance evaluation.

If possible, the partnership should be separate from the chain of command to ensure an open and honest dialogue. It works best if there are at least two grade levels between them, but can also be comprised of folks who are at the same grade level and even a veteran employee whose status is below the mentee’s, if the discussion is focused on specific areas of expertise that are held by an employee at any level.

What does it mean to be a mentor?

  1. Mentors need to have the desire to share what they have learned during their careers.
  2. Mentors must be willing to spend time with the mentee to develop a good working relationship that is trusting and honest.
  3. Good mentors must be able to offer a reality check when necessary.
  4. They must be willing to work with the mentee to develop an Individual Career Development Plan in order for her or him to achieve short and long term goals.
  5. This is the tough one: they should be willing to share their failures as well as their successes. It is sometimes said that the benefit of a mentoring relationship is to help someone learn from mistakes without having to experience them.

How does the mentor benefit?

  1. Mentors get a chance to pass on their institutional wisdom.
  2. Mentors have an opportunity to practice their interpersonal and management skills outside the usual hierarchical relationship.
  3. Mentors often become recognized as positive role models and are sometimes sought out by others.
  4. Many find that being in a mentoring partnership helps them expand their own horizons and keeps them in touch with what’s going on in other areas of the organization.
  5. Mentors often insist that they gain as much, if not more, from the mentoring partnership than their mentee does.

What are the mentee’s responsibilities?

  1. Mentees must be willing to learn.
  2. They must be able to accept constructive feedback.
  3. Mentees must be willing to “stretch” and try new things and take risks.
  4. They must be able to identify short and long-range career goals and accept that those goals may change.

What does the mentee get out of it?

  1. Everyone is ultimately responsible for her or his own career, but it can be very helpful to have someone to talk to who can provide a listening ear and share what has helped him or her over the years.
  2. Mentors can provide valuable direction and clarification at times of confusion or doubt.
  3. Mentors can help the mentee figure out what they need to do to fill in the gaps between where they are now and where they want to be in the future.
  4. Mentors can provide alternative perspectives.

What are the different types of mentoring?

  1. Natural mentoring is when one person is casually talking with another and the conversation helps move him or her forward.
  2. Situational mentoring is usually short-lived and happens for a specific purpose because something has come up that requires consultation.
  3. Supervisory mentoring is that gained from one’s supervisor. It is very important, but there are some drawbacks:
  • The supervisor may not be a “subject matter expert” in the topic at hand.
  • Supervisors are often very busy and they may not be able to devote equal time to all supervisees.
  • Some people are not comfortable exhibiting vulnerabilities in front of their supervisors for fear that it will negatively affect their performance evaluations.

Reviewing the mentoring relationship:

  1. Plan to commit to a one-year partnership. It takes a while to develop the trust and rapport necessary to begin working on identifying goals and an action plan to achieve them.
  2. Plan to discuss a “no-fault” termination clause, in which either party can back out if it’s not working for her or him.
  3. Plan to have a six-month check-in to evaluate how it’s evolving for each person.
  4. Monitor the necessary training needs that emerge and make them happen on a systemic level.

The most knowledgeable people are not necessarily the most communicative. Mentorship training programs help to discover who is best suited to the role and will provide them the techniques and skills to fulfill the requirements. It also should include a thoughtful process of how best to pair mentors and mentees.

Gerri King, Ph.D., is a founding partner and president of Human Dynamics Associates Inc., in Concord, New Hampshire. For more information, visit

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