Career Advice

My Advice for a Successful Mentoring Relationship

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(6 min read) By Michael J Martin

Being a mentor is all about the learning and development of a person who is junior to you. Mentorship connects a more experienced professional with someone who is less experienced; an informal relationship to exchange knowledge, provide guidance, and share experiences, all aimed to help the mentee succeed and avoid the career and project pitfalls that the mentor may have had to struggle with in their career track. It is a form of ‘give-back’ and it can be a very personally rewarding experience.  The mentee is the focus of the efforts, so it is all about giving – it is about being of service.

Mentoring goes back to ancient Greece and has been practiced in Europe for hundreds of years. The word itself was inspired by the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. In North America, it largely emerged in the early 1970s and has been viewed as an innovative management practice. There are important historical links to the movement of advancing workplace equity for women and minorities.

In my role, I mentor three IBMersall smart, capable, and highly energetic. One is in Canada, one is in the USA, and another in Pakistan. In each case, they have participated enthusiastically in this mentorship engagement process. The guidance that I share with each of them is uniquely different. They are all individuals, in different roles and with different responsibilities, so their needs are diverse too. But there is a level of commonality that they all share they are looking for career advice, or they need solutions to customer problems, or they just are unsure of their own decisions and seek confirmation of their thought processes.

Steps to Mentoring

The Coaching Association of Canada defines three steps to be a mentor:

  1. Plan a meeting – Keep it simple, one theme per meeting with several objectives aimed at the desired outcomes. It is all about framing the issue in an easy to comprehend manner.
  2. Observation – The mentor listens. The mentor observes the mentee and gathers information on how well the mentee’s plans are working.  It is not about the proverbial ‘Sage on the Stage’ but is about facilitation.
  3. Reflective conversation – The mentor summarizes and gives feedback on the information gathered in Step 2, and the mentee responds to the mentor’s summary and feedback. Discussing the information should get mentees to reflect on what they learned from the task or session and on how to transfer these learnings to their next situation.

Will the mentee still make mistakes?  Yes, absolutely they will, because mistakes are a critical part of learning. They can be good things too. It is all about how you deal with mistakes. As well, it is vital to mitigate risk and to manage outcomes, so mistakes do not explode and become unmanageable.

Mohammad (mentor) and Michael (mentee) at 3,000 feet over Toronto

Rules of Engagement

To be successful at mentorship, it demands a process and some clearly defined rules of engagement, such as: How do you meet?  (I use WebEx.)  How often do you meet?  (I meet once per month or more if motivated by a specific event or activity.) How long do you meet?  (I book my meetings for one hour but can often take just 20-30 minutes.)  Are the meetings formal?  (No, but you must have some underpinning structure with one theme and 3-5 objectives aimed at the desired outcomes for each meeting.)

The Mentor-Mentee Relationship

The mentor-mentee relationship can and usually does have a finite shelf lifeit may last just one year, or for a decade. So there will be a time when the relationship will naturally dissolve once the mentee has gained all that they can from you. However, that does not mean that the friendship ends. It is my view that you cannot have a strong mentorship without some strength in the personal relationship too. Friendship and mentorship go hand in hand. With the rapid agility in employment these days, we are seeing millennials change jobs in one, two, or three years. Similarly, the mentee’s needs will absolutely change with their roles and responsibilities, and you may no longer ‘fit’ what they need in a mentor. So be prepared to let these relationships go as they evolve and mature in their careers.

Not all mentorships coalesce. Some do fail. So, framing the relationship and defining expectations and success upfront is essential. If it is not working for either party, you will feel it. So end it professionally, and then look for a new relationship.

Being a mentor is not just about work. In the modern business world, the line between work and personal time is dramatically blurred. The days of a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 job is almost gone. One of the recurring themes that I hear is, “How do I find balance between work and family?” It is a challenge for most corporate professionals at all levels. Therefore, mentorship should consider the whole person and not just the work person.

Michael Martin (mentor) took Mohammad Ismail (mentee) for a flight around Toronto

Rewards of Mentoring

One surprising aspect of being a mentor is that it is not ‘just’ about giving of your time and experience. While that is a large part of it and being of service to our colleagues is the core logic behind mentorship, you will be richly rewarded too. In the beginning, I incorrectly assumed that it was a one-way street.  But that is simply not true. Mentorship is a two-way street and provides meaningful dividends to both parties. I learn so much from my mentees; I am surprised at how much I get from these relationships.

So, I urge you with a call-to-action to engage in mentorship today. You can be the mentor or the mentee, as both gain tremendously from these relationships and so will you!

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