A mentor, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and, often, younger person. This is what we all envision when mentoring someone -- youth and inexperience. However, that's not always the case.
While it's more common to mentor a young intern or co-worker, the truth is, mentorship is for anyone, of any age, who seeks knowledge and wants to get ahead in business or in life.
May is Young Achievers of Tomorrow Month, and it's up to us to help foster the next generation of entrepreneurs. According to the National Mentoring Partnership, 90 percent of young adults in one survey who received mentorship became mentors themselves. Even more impressive: 130 percent were more likely to hold leadership positions themselves.
Throughout my career, I've had several mentors, but the most impactful one was Mike O'Connor, the owner of a print shop I ended up purchasing. He taught me the proper way to run a business, including what benchmarks to use to determine how much I needed to sell, how to set up metrics and KPIs and how to properly understand the targets I needed to hit. To this day, I still use those lessons on a regular basis, just on a larger scale.
As professionals, we've all encountered situations that seem overwhelming at first. Situations which, especially for someone starting out, made us afraid to make a move. When I myself first started out, I often heard my superiors say, "Because we've always done it that way" when asked why we were doing something a certain way.
At the time, I really wanted to say something, but I thought no one wanted to hear from the new kid, so I stayed quiet. Looking back, I made a mistake for not speaking out.
As someone who has been mentored and still looks to mentor others, I can list the top three traits I believe someone should look out for in a mentor:
Good mentors are always willing to share what they know -- with anyone who asks. They do so for the good of the business, the company and because they want you, the person seeking the mentoring, to succeed. Mentors never do it for personal glory. In fact, mentoring is their way of "paying it forward," so they are often generous in offering their help.
A study compiled for the Young Entrepreneurs' Alliance Summit showed that 88 percent of young entrepreneurs surveyed who had a mentor survived in their business, compared to a 50 percent failure rate for those without a mentor.
What's important here that mentees be mindful of their mentors' time, even if the latter don't mind sharing their knowledge. Good mentoring takes time and commitment, but both parties must set realistic expectations that are agreed upon ahead of time. Not that mentoring always eats up significant time: Sometimes, important information can be exchanged in just a quick 15-minute call or meeting, depending on the mentor's schedule.
I always make room in my own schedule, telling my team that "My door is always open." A little bit of wrangling with my schedule may be required, but if mentees have a specific situation they have questions about how to handle, I make the time and use my experience to help them make the best decision possible moving forward.
If you're looking for someone to give you a gold star just because you're trying, you have the wrong idea about what mentoring is. A mentor should always be truthful with the advice dispensed, even if it stings a little. A straight-shooting mentor will be more beneficial in the long run than someone who is constantly praising you.
Specific rather than generic feedback is also more beneficial. For example, if you're mentoring a young employee about a quarterly report and the report isn't as organized as it should be, say so. Tell this person, "The report lacks organization in columns four through 10." By being specific and clear with questions posed, you communicate where and how improvement can take place.
A good mentor is further willing to provide concrete and constructive feedback; otherwise, he or she will be doing you a disservice. Things will only get harder as your career advances, so use that feedback as a building block.
If you ask for my advice, take it for what it is -- advice based on years of experience. If it's not what you wanted to hear, or doesn't fit your agenda, why did you even seek me out?
For the mentorship to succeed, there must be a certain level of discretion and trust. If a mentor is someone from your own company, he or she must be able to keep confidences; otherwise, major rifts may occur between employees; managers may be rubbed the wrong way. Mentees need to feel that they can talk to their mentor about any challenge they're facing, without fears of repercussion.
If this could be an issue, my advice is to look for a mentor outside of your company or even outside of your industry. In fact, a 3Plus survey of prospective mentees indicated a preference for external mentors.
Knowledge and experience aren't partial to a specific industry, so don't limit yourself. Look for someone who will push you out of your comfort zone and someone who will ask really tough questions. Successful leaders help create tension by constantly pushing the envelope. That is how you grow.
Given the fast pace of business, it's natural for anyone to feel a bit of skepticism about taking the time to mentor someone. However, I see it as an investment worth making. If I mentor someone who's eager to get things done and get his or her hands dirty, that's the kind of person I want around me - even if that person ends up being my competitor later on.
These are people I refer to as "clock-changers." In my days as a Kodak CMO, I changed the time on the clock of the conference room -- on purpose. I wanted to see if anyone would notice. Many people noticed, but no one did anything to change the clocks. Weeks later, one woman, in her skirt and high heels, climbed up onto a chair and changed it back to the right time. That was someone not afraid to get her hands dirty. That is the kind of person I want around me.
In sum, the benefits of mentoring, for a businesses, are significant. For starters, mentoring helps build pools of skilled workers, encourages other employees to get involved and helps you add the skill of developing talent to your repertoire. Good talent, after all, equals more revenue. That young person standing before you can also give back, helping you for instance to become more proficient on social media (and apps), which in turn can simplify your workload -- the possibilities are endless.
On the other side of the aisle, if you're someone who's decided you want a mentor, remember that while titles are impressive and look good on a resume, mentorship should be based on wisdom, not titles. Titles come and go, but there's no substitute for experience.