I recently gave a talk at TEDxJHUDC answering the question, “How do I define successful mentoring?” I shared stories about ten successful mentoring experiences and a few details regarding four other experiences before summarizing the five characteristics that define my successful mentoring experiences:
Enthusiasm. I am energized by the amazing relationships I have developed through mentoring. The energy and associated enthusiasm make me approachable. At a discussion about mentoring, a participant told me that formally asking someone to be her mentor felt as awkward as asking someone to prom. If the person being asked is enthusiastic about mentoring, the ask shouldn’t be that challenging.
Empathy. One of my former direct reports flattered me by calling me “the most empathetic supervisor she ever had.” I share with my mentees that I have had my own ups and downs, that I had and still have massive uncertainties about my career, and that I am “only human.” This enhances my approachability.
Curiosity. One mentee I mentioned in my talk is an attorney and another studies baroque flute. As a health economist and vice dean for education at a business school, law and music are not my specialties. However, I effectively mentor them because my curiosity results in a life-long love of learning. While I can’t be an expert in everything, I can learn about others’ passions and offer relevant reflections.
Connections. I have many, and I love creating more. This can be as simple as introducing the attorney to a fellow parent on my youngest son’s ice hockey team who works at a local law firm and has a good work-life balance. Another example was introducing someone I had just met to someone I knew at a networking breakfast when it was clear that they could benefit from a conversation.
Vulnerability. I realize that not everyone will like my model of mentoring. My mentees won’t follow my advice every time. When they do, not every suggestion works. Even successful suggestions might lead mentees in unpredictable directions. However, I cannot let any of those limit my enthusiasm about mentoring.
I could weave together a long definition involving these five characteristics, but I like to keep mission statements short. So, my mission in successful mentoring involves committing to being vulnerable while making a difference for one person that will be translated into a difference for others. In other words, success is defined not just by my mentees’ success but by their passing on what I have modeled.
Whether my definition of mentoring is right for your or not, I’d recommend identifying your definition (whether you are a mentor or mentee). Once you have a definition, recognize that some exceptional mentoring relationships are informal. Remember that if you need the mentoring relationship to be formal, asking should be comfortable. Finally, make those who have advanced your development (formally or informally) aware of your gratitude. That will be as much of a gift to your mentor as their mentoring has been a gift to you.