Can you think of a mentor who has helped you grow either personally or professionally? Perhaps a teacher? A boss early in your career? When have you mentored someone? How did it work out?

I can remember a teacher or two who helped guide me. My first supervisor in manufacturing would put me in situations where I couldn’t help but grow. My problem then was that although I could do the work intellectually, my interpersonal skills were sadly lacking. Especially in the manufacturing environment of the time that placed a premium on strong personality. I can still remember moments when he set me up for a confrontation forcing me to be forceful. I think the other guys liked it because I was almost the only “college kid” there. The old guys loved to poke at the college kid.

Many people have begun studying mentorship. We talk often about mentoring young soccer referees as the best way to move them from the classroom to a successful career.

I recently ran across this older article in the Harvard Business Review by Anthony K. Tjan. His research revealed four things that the best mentors do.

Before he gets to the four things, he notes that mentors he studied consistently “do everything they can to imprint their ‘goodness’ onto others in ways that make others feel like fuller versions of themselves. Put another way, the best leaders practice a form of leadership that is less about creating followers and more about creating other leaders.”

  1. Put the relationship before the mentorship. All too often, mentorship can evolve into a “check the box” procedure instead of something authentic and relationship-based. For real mentorship to succeed, there needs to be a baseline chemistry between a mentor and a mentee. Mentoring requires rapport. At best, it propels people to break from their formal roles and titles (boss versus employee) and find common ground as people.
  2. Focus on character rather than competency. Too many mentors see mentoring as a training program focused around the acquisition of job skills. Obviously, one element of mentorship involves mastering the necessary competencies for a given position. But the best leaders go beyond competency, focusing on helping to shape other people’s character, values, self-awareness, empathy, and capacity for respect.
  3. Shout loudly with your optimism, and keep quiet with your cynicism. Your mentee might come to you with some off-the-wall ideas or seemingly unrealistic ambitious. You might be tempted to help them think more realistically, but mentors need to be givers of energy, not takers of it.
  4. Be more loyal to your mentee than you are to your company. Of course, we all want to retain our best and brightest. We also want our people to be effective in our organizations. That said, the best mentors recognize that in its most noble and powerful form, leadership is a duty and service toward others, and that the best way to inspire commitment is to be fully and selflessly committed to the best interests of colleagues and employees. Don’t seek only to uncover your mentees’ strengths; look for their underlying passions, too. Help them find their calling.

And Tjan makes a couple of final points: The best mentors avoid overriding the dreams of their mentees. At its highest level, mentorship is about being “good people” and having the right “good people” around us — individuals committed to helping others become fuller versions of who they are.

This is all based on research as is befitting of the Harvard Business Review. It is also wise guidance.

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