Mentoring Basics: Part 3(c)

We’re past the halfway mark in exploring Mentoring Basics.  This post is the third of three posts on “how to start a mentoring relationship”.

If you’re new to this series, you can start at the beginning by clicking here.

As we’ve discussed in the last two posts, starting a mentoring relationship correctly is nearly as important as the mentorship itself.  And you as the mentor are in the position to ensure it gets started correctly.

In Mentoring Basics: 3(a) we discussed the importance of asking good questions to understand the what’s and why’s behind the potential mentee’s motivations.

In Mentoring Basics: 3(b) we talked about the importance of honestly assessing the answers to the questions and ensuring they line up with where you are and who you are as a mentor.

Asking the questions and assessing the answers should put you in a place where you can make a decision about whether to say ‘yes or no’ to the relationship.

Now, we’re going to talk about HOW to deliver that decision and set expectations in the relationship.

Delivering the Decision

We’ll start with the NO.  This is a delicate conversation as a leader.  No one likes rejection.  And as a leader, you should feel that you have an obligation to lift others up and improve their situation; even if the answer is no.

First, let’s cover where you say it. I suggest finding a place away from others where you two can talk in a more private setting.  This is a tough message and you want to mitigate any potential embarrassment.

Second, let’s talk about what you say.  I would begin by thanking them for considering you.  It should be very humbling for someone to seek you out as a mentor.  Acknowledge and appreciate them for that.  From there, my suggestion is to be very honest.  Since the answer is ‘no’, then tell them why.  Don’t have the time to commit?  Then say so. Don’t think you’re the right fit?  Then say so.  Don’t leave them wondering.

I also suggest that you are very clear in the words you use.  If you aren’t clear with what you say, it may leave room for vague interpretation and them not understanding it’s a ‘no’.  This is similar to nicely ‘ripping the Band-Aid off’.  They should leave the conversation knowing that the answer is ‘no’.

Finally, let’s look at how you say it.  I’m sure that you’ve heard before that HOW you say something is just as important as WHAT you say.  This is one of those situations that this is definitely true. Again, no one likes rejection.  So, the tone and manner in which you convey the message becomes critical.  Be aware of your body language and focus on delivering the message.  Try to find a way to keep the conversation upbeat.

One way to do this is by helping them succeed.  If you say ‘no’, how can you help them find a ‘yes’?  Can you suggest another mentor?  Introduce them?  Suggest another method for them to learn what they want to learn?  Perhaps it’s to not enter in to a formal mentorship, but instead to provide intermittent support, an occasional lunch, and/or be there to ‘bounce things off of’.

Now let’s discuss the YES.  Obviously, this is a much easier discussion.  However, it’s more than just saying yes.  Delivering this answer is similar to the ‘no’.  You should do it in the right place, with the right words, in the right manner.  The big takeaway here is to ensure that the mentee knows it isn’t just “yes and away we go”, but it’s “yes and let’s set some expectations.”

Setting Parameters

Establishing expectations and boundaries is very important at the beginning of a relationship.  The key here is to be very honest with them about your expectations and how you want this relationship to work.

There’s a multitude of potential boundaries and fence posts in a mentoring relationship, but here are some big ones:

  • Set the expectation of key characteristics, for example:
    • openness
    • honesty
    • good work ethic
    • timeliness, punctuality
    • humility
    • reception of feedback
  • Let them know how you operate as a mentor.  What are they in store for?
  • Set the goals of the mentorship and expected outcomes.
  • Set expectations around frequency of meetings or changes to meetings.
  • Set expectations around any additional work you may be giving them (e.g., assignments, accompaniment on work trips, etc.).
  • Be honest that you may have some conversations with their supervisor (if this is the case).
  • Let them know if you are going to need any personal documents (e.g., past evaluations, etc.).
  • Set a time limit on the mentorship.

Again, this is not a complete list, but includes many key expectations that should be discussed or at least considered.

One of the most important expectations that is rarely discussed, is the time limit.  This is one that I personally have failed at many times.  Mainly because I never knew how important it was.  If you don’t set or agree upon a time limit in the beginning, it means that you’re left with an awkward or ambiguous situation in the end where things just tend to dwindle off.  Learn from my past mistakes here, it is better to set this in the beginning than try to deal with it later.

Some of the more successful mentorships that I have been involved with as a mentee have been where a time limit was set.  Specifically, besides eliminating the awkwardness at the end, it told me that I had a specified amount of time to accomplish what I was setting out to do.  And a good mentor will help keep the mentee on track.

If you don’t know how long you should structure a mentorship for, I suggest looking in the 6 month to 1-year range.  It’s long enough to get some big things accomplished, but not too short that you are creating a burden of time on yourself or the mentee.

Getting Off to a Great Start

Between the last three posts, you should have a better understanding of the three key steps in starting a mentoring relationship.

  • Relationship Initiation – asking questions to understand what and why
  • Honest Assessment – understanding and assessing the information you’ve received and how it works with your personal situation
  • Setting Expectations – setting parameters to ensure a productive relationship.

These steps are good tools to put in to your Leader’s Locker that should help set you up for a successful mentoring relationship.  What happens next is the follow through during the course of the relationship.

In the next post, we’ll talk through some key mentoring “do’s and don’ts”.




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