5 Tips for Mentoring Future Mentors | TechWell

5 Tips for Mentoring Future Mentors

A mentor and mentee talking and looking at a laptop

A couple of years ago a friend roped me into volunteering to teach project management topics one day each semester to disadvantaged high school students involved in an after-school STEM program. It’s fun and encouraging to see fresh minds absorb useful skills.

This semester, the high schoolers will be mentoring some of the kids at a local junior high, and I was asked to build a short session on communication for mentors.

The idea was intriguing. Surely I’ve learned something about mentoring over my forty years as an Army Ranger, IT professional, project manager, and consultant. Boiling that down to a thirty-minute talk for teenagers was a challenge I relished.

After all, my favorite Einstein quote is “If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.”

My first thought was, who else could I ask about this? Fortunately, I went to a consultants retreat shortly after I agreed to do the presentation, so I held a session and solicited wisdom from consulting friends. I distilled the output into five principles.

1. Get permission before you offer advice

My friend Dale Emery was the first person to share this with me, and it makes a world of difference. No one wants help inflicted on them. Try asking, “May I make a suggestion?” People are more apt to listen when they have asked to hear what you have to say.

2. Ask questions rather than directing

Beyond being a gentler way to guide someone you are mentoring, questions have the added advantage of exploring the context together with the person you are mentoring to discover things that you might not know about a situation. Try, “Have you considered x?” and “What have you thought of so far?” Jointly discovering a path forward is more rewarding for both participants.

3. Never embarrass someone you are coaching

Asking for help makes people vulnerable, and to work effectively, they need to feel safe. I was glad one of my consulting friends said this, because at first it seemed so obvious that I don’t know if I would have called it out, but it’s a profound observation.

4. Listen more than you speak

This is a good rule in general, but it’s particularly important if you don’t want to seem arrogant. At a recent memorial for a friend, one of the sincere and complimentary things said was, “When he listened to you he gave you his full attention and looked you in the eyes.”

5. Be encouraging

This is an easy one to forget. It’s tempting to focus on what is broken or not working, neglecting to take the time to acknowledge what is working. Reinforcing the positive is essential to learning. Remember that we were all rookies once. What are they doing right?

These are the lessons I hope to impart. Writing them down and talking about them with friends reinforced them for me, as well.

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