How do mentors bring their business experience to their advice as a mentor?
By Michelle Wright
By definition, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor.” Although this is technically true, it leaves a lot to be desired.
In my experience mentoring two very different NYC high school students, being an effective mentor is not always about telling someone what to do. Instead, it’s about playing multiple roles to help the mentee achieve their objective. Sometimes being a mentor means sharing business knowledge, while other times it means being a support system. Below are three key roles that I’ve learned are important to the success of the mentor-mentee relationship.
Role 1: Consultant
This is the most obvious role for a mentor to play. Just as consultants are hired to provide specialized recommendations based on a wealth of industry knowledge, mentors are responsible for sharing their own business insights gained through years of real-world experience. Mentors are often experienced in areas that mentees are not, and insight from a mentor can save a mentee both time and resources in figuring out a problem. This frees up the mentee to focus on novel issues that are unique to their business / objective.
Role 2: Counselor
Listen. Guide. But don’t give away all of the answers. Although it can be easy for a mentor to simply point out mistakes, there are often valuable lessons for mentees in making those mistakes along the way. A good mentor will be able to reflect on their own experiences to determine when the journey was more insightful than the outcome. In these instances, a mentor must play the role of counselor and provide guidance but not answers, enabling their mentee to figure out the right course of action individually.
It can be tempting for a mentor to revert from counselor to consultant. At what point does a mentor have a responsibility to step in? The answer is not 100% clear, but it does depend a great deal on the mentee’s learning style. Some mentees need hands-on experience to fully understand concepts, while others prefer theoretical explanations.
For example, one of my mentees was a very proactive young woman who had a strong vision for her business. She relied on me, her mentor, to provide business knowledge about operations and communications. But, when we were preparing for her upcoming presentation to a panel of investors, she was struggling with answering potential questions from panelists. Rather than writing a script for her, I gave her an outline of what format her answers should take, and she practiced giving answers within this structure. Soon, after practicing on her own, she was able to calmly and comprehensively answer ad hoc questions from investors.
When it comes to critical business skills like these, it’s important that mentors play the role of counselor and let the mentee discover the answer on their own. By navigating the situation individually, they not only uncover the answer to their immediate problem, but also learn a life-long skill that will serve them well into the future.
As a mentee, it also helps to understand whether you learn best by doing something or reading about it. Sharing this information with your mentor will help them understand when they need to step in.
Role 3: Cheerleader
In addition to all of the constructive feedback and advice that a mentor can give, they should also provide support and enthusiasm. Starting a business has many up and downs, and it can be encouraging to know that your mentor is rooting for you. Mentors should help celebrate a mentee’s successes – no matter how big or small.
Most mentors will know when it is appropriate to play each role. But that doesn’t mean that mentees should just let their mentor figure it out. Mentees should be open and honest about what they need and expect from their mentor. At the end of the day, whether the mentor is being a consultant, counselor or cheerleader, transparency and communication are two important aspects of a successful mentor-mentee relationship.
TL;DR (too long, didn’t read): Being a mentor is more than telling someone what to do. It means sharing expertise with a consultant mindset, guiding the mentee along their journey (without giving away all the answers), and being a cheerleader when the mentee needs it most.
Header Image courtesy of: Flickr
Michelle Wright is a Citi Employee with over 5 years experience in corporate communications and a volunteer with NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship). She is a regular contributor to the Ye! blog.