Help Others Help Themselves: A Quick Guide to Mentorship

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I have been a teacher on and off during my career.  I’m currently “on” again, teaching an entrepreneurship course for undergraduates at a local university.  Business courses tend to focus on team project work because that’s how businesses are run: a group of people working together to achieve a common goal.

Inevitably, whenever I teach a course that involves teamwork, at least one student hits me up mid-semester with a complaint about a teammate.  Usually it is an expectation issue where one student hasn’t contributed as much to the project as other students would like.  Generally, the students turn to me to resolve the issue, which wouldn’t be such a huge deal except every time this happens, no one has actually talked to the alleged “underachieving” student and tried to fix the issue themselves.

We all have situations in our life where we have to mentor someone.  Even if you have never taught a class, you may be a parent, you might need to train someone at work, or you simply have a friend who always comes to you for help.  Mentoring others not only improves your mentees’ lives, but gives you the satisfaction of knowing you’ve given them useful life skills.  But how do you transfer those skills effectively?  Here’s my list of dos and don’ts for helping others learn to help themselves:

Do Give Advice…

You probably have some real world experience to offer, so don’t hesitate to provide advice on the subject.  It could be as simple as outlining your experience to providing a huge list of resources your mentee can use to solve issues.  Advice provides the mentee with options on how to proceed, which he likely needs if he’s coming to you with a problem.

…But Don’t Take Action on Your Mentee’s Behalf.

At first, your mentee will try to get you to solve his problems.  This is natural, as you are the one with experience and could do it much more quickly than he could.  However, you must resist the urge to do so.  Instead, go back to advice, this time with more coaching.  If you have to, walk him through a process step-by-step to give him a more concrete example of how to do it himself.  While time-consuming, it’s better than doing the work for your mentee, which will only teach him that whenever he’s in trouble, you’re there to bail him out.

Do Check up on Your Mentee’s Progress…

Any good learning process will involve some level of feedback from you, the mentor.  You should expect checkpoints where you will evaluate your mentee’s progress.  Is she getting quicker at solving her own problems?  Is she becoming more adaptable to situations?  Can she tackle new situations on her own?  These are all good signs that you should recognize and encourage.

…But Don’t Be a Constant Presence.

Evaluations and checkpoints are one thing; breathing over your mentee’s shoulder is another.  If you get too involved in the minutia of your mentee’s decisions, she will become paralyzed, unable to make a move without your approval.  Give your mentee room to make her own decisions, and yes, even to make mistakes.  Sometimes, a mistake will do a lot more to help your mentee improve than all your words will.  You can always be there to remind her that, no matter what obstacles she faces, she can dust herself off and try again.

Do Set Clear Expectations…

As with all relationships, it helps to set rules and boundaries for mentorship.  If you have firm rules that you will only be available during certain times, then stick to that.  Sometimes having periods of “black out” times will force your mentee to be creative on his own.  If you start to break your own rules, it creates a slippery slope where your mentee may try to get you to solve his problems again.

…But Also Don’t Be Afraid to Let Go.

At some point during your mentorship, you may find that your mentee can handle himself or maybe he’s even surpassed you.  If you find yourself in this position, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.  There’s nothing wrong with letting the relationship go, even if you enjoyed mentoring.  Odds are, if you’ve helped this mentee succeed, others will also seek you out for advice.

What rules of mentorship have you discovered?  Please share them in the comments below.

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