How to be a good mentor

Written by Eric Titner

Those of us who have had the opportunity to have a good professional mentor as we travel through our career paths are well aware of the value they bring—this includes everything from support, encouragement, and motivation; to opening new doors; to networking and job opportunities. The bottom line is that a good mentor is really worth their weight in gold. 

That said, others among us have learned that some people who find themselves in a position to be mentors are really not well-suited for the role and can even do more harm than good. A bad mentor can hold you back from new opportunities and career advancement, set you off on a trajectory that isn’t right for you, and even sour you on an industry entirely.

Clearly, the role of a mentor isn’t one to be taken lightly. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and one that could potentially give you a great deal of power and influence over someone in need of real advice, molding, and guidance. If you’re making a conscious decision to become a mentor to someone junior to you in your field, make sure that you enter the role with every intention of being a positive influence. Consider using the following strategies to get started on the right foot.

3 rules to being a strong mentor

Don’t feel threatened

Here’s the raw truth when it comes to most mentor/mentee relationships: you’re helping to train the next generation of workers in your field, and they’re going to be just as ambitious as you likely were when you were just starting out and eager to climb to the top of your career ladder as quickly as possible. Take a moment to look back on those times—didn’t you have visions of eventually seizing the reins of power and filling your boss’s shoes (hopefully as they quietly shuffle out of your way)? Chances are if you’re mentoring someone they’ll likely be harboring the same ambitions.

Don’t let this cloud your relationship with them or make you feel threatened and defensive—or worse, make you work against their best interests. Instead, recognize that this is a natural part of the professional cycle. As older employers mature, new employees will enter the field and hopefully gain the necessary skills and experience to one day take control. It happened for you, and one day it’ll happen for them; after all, you won’t be in the world of work forever and likely don’t want to be. The best you can do as a mentor is to help ensure that you’re placing the future of your company and industry in capable hands.

Don’t do it for personal gain

In the world of work, most of us are used to the sort of “quid pro quo” arrangement where both sides get something tangible when taking part in a mutually agreed upon transaction. However, the mentor/mentee relationship is a little bit different. The fact of the matter is, there’s an inherent imbalance (of sorts) when it comes to “who gets what” here; the mentor typically devotes a significant amount of time and energy to the exchange and the mentee reaps most of the benefits—the knowledge, skills, experience, and opportunities that you’re passing along to them. It is true that mentors get the satisfaction of knowing that they’re “paying it forward” and helping out the next generation, but make sure that that’s enough of a return on your investment when deciding whether or not to be a mentor. Do it for the satisfaction of helping pave the way for someone else, and not for personal gain.

Check yourself

As we said before, becoming a mentor is a big responsibility and not one to be taken lightly. You’re going to have a real impact on the life of someone in a dependent and impressionable time in their life, so make sure you have enough time and energy to do it well. There’s nothing quite as dispiriting as having a mentor who never seems to have the time to work with you and who you’re always chasing down for help and guidance—or worse, who seems annoyed or put out by your needs. Don’t be that sort of mentor—if you commit to doing it, make sure you’re doing so with the understanding that you’re going to have to carve out a significant amount of your time and resources towards being a good and reliable source of support and guidance all the way through.

Being a mentor can be a challenging role, and often the rewards aren’t immediately tangible. However, when done properly, being a positive mentor to an eager and excited individual can be an extremely rewarding and fulfilling experience. If you’re going to be a mentor, then commit to being a good one, and use the strategies and advice presented here to help you along the way.

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.