Five Things I’ve Learned from Mentoring

Educators like to say that a teacher often learns more from students than vice versa. Well, the same applies to mentoring yet I’m not sure it gets the same attention.

One can argue that mentoring is similar to teaching, especially if an instructor follows the Socratic method. After all, effective teaching and effective mentoring aren’t about sharing wisdom and giving answers; they’re about asking questions, provoking thought, stimulating reflection, and deepening inquiry.

So how does the mentor (or teacher) learn more than the student? That’s a long, complicated answer. But I do know that in all the years I’ve been mentoring and advising entrepreneurs, it has probably had the greatest impact on my own personal and professional development.

This list is by no means exhaustive, just what I can think of today. It’s what I’ve learned from mentoring and, in some cases, may be lessons that I could not have learned in any other role…except teaching.

  1. Listening is everything. Deep down, everyone knows this but not all practice it. If a mentor speaks more than the protege during a meeting, it wasn’t an effective session. The mentor’s job is to ask questions, listen actively, observe body language and non-verbals, and read between the lines. Often, the protege’s questions and concerns disguise the underlying issues so it’s the mentor’s job to uncover them. When the “mentor” dominates a session, you might as well call him/her a “consultant” or “advisor”.
  2. Advice is silly. I’ve found that advice (telling someone what to do) is relevant only when based on experience, not hypotheticals or opinions. When giving advice, I’m making an assumption that the context of the protege’s situation is very similar – if not exactly the same – as mine. That almost never happens. So now I avoid advice altogether and share the experience only, or relate what I know of others’ experiences. That way, I allow the protege to process the information and decide what, if anything, to do.
  3. Ego is poisonous. Speaking of advice, I think a major driver of it (consciously or not) is an inner desire to show off what we know. But when we start to put our ego in front of the protege’s learning and development, the mentoring process breaks down. Some proteges are smart and experienced enough to figure this out; others take some time to get it. The bottom line is that no one benefits.
  4. Timing is key. There’s an ancient Zen saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” One can’t force mentoring. There was a time when I used to follow-up with young entrepreneurs if I hadn’t heard from them in a while, thinking that they may not be experienced enough to know when and how to follow up. I realized I had to simply wait for them to discover when the timing was right.
  5. Notes are critical. Might sound trite, but note-taking for both parties is important. For the protege, it helps them recall stream-of-consciousness thoughts, questions, issues, and to-do items. For the mentor, it helps them understand what questions, tactics, and conversations helped or hurt the mentoring process. Effective note-taking can be a significant driver of the mentor’s learning.

I’m curious what you’ve learned from mentoring, regardless of which side of the fence you’ve been on, and especially if you’ve been in both roles.

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