Mentoring 101

January 21, 2013
Mentor

Telemachus consults Mentor

It’s said that King Solomon was the wisest man who ever walked the earth.  From the stories it seems his leadership ability was pretty astonishing as well.  Imagine what it would have been like to spend an hour with him.  What questions would you ask?  What problems would you want him to help you solve?  What best practices would you want to know about?

I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Jeff Myers in college and he introduced me to the art of mentoring.  My life hasn’t been the same since.  Unfortunately none of us will ever get an audience with King Solomon, but there are plenty of “Solomons” out there we can and should be seeking out.  Many people refer to them as mentors.  Think of a mentor as simply someone who is wiser, more knowledgeable, or has more experience than you in a certain area.  They could be older or younger than you.  And since we are never the best and brightest at everything,  there are always plenty of potential mentors all around us.  We simply need to be proactive.

Mentors help us go further faster.

So how can you get the most from the mentors in your life?  Here are five easy ways:

Think of an area you want to learn more about or grow in.

This will help you determine the person you want to get input from, either professionally or personally. If you want to improve your leadership ability, you should look for someone with wisdom, knowledge, or experience in leadership.  The same goes for writing, selling, buying a house, starting a business, studying for the MCAT, exploring careers in web design, social networking, etc. The options are literally limitless.

Identify a potential mentor and seek an audience.

Okay, that sounds a little formal.  But the important thing to keep in mind is that they are the giver and you are the receiver.  Therefore, tell your potential mentor what you are trying to learn more about and that you value their input and will accommodate their schedule.  You can invite him or her to breakfast or coffee, offer to stop by their office, ask for a reasonable amount of time on the telephone or video chat, or simply include your questions in an email.  If your potential mentor is not a current acquaintance, ask a mutual friend to introduce you.

Have a list of questions prepared.

Here are some of the tried-and-true favorites I’ve acquired.  I also found this great list of leadership questions from Michael Hyatt.

  • You’ve been successful in this field when so many others have failed.  What made the difference for you?
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way?
  • What advice would you give to someone just starting out today?
  • What are some of the obstacles along the way I’ll need to be aware of?
  • If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?
  • Who are the key leaders in this field I should be following?
  • What books, publications, or blogs should I be reading?
  • What questions haven’t I asked that I should be asking?

Make it a pleasant experience for your mentor.

Make sure to thank you mentor for his or her time.  If there is anything helpful or valuable you can provide, then don’t hesitate to offer it, such as briefly sharing what you’re learned already or a resource you’ve really benefited from.  And incidentally, don’t feel the need to call your mentor a “mentor!”  If they get the impression they’ve signed up for more than they’ve bargained for, it can lead to an unpleasant experience for them!

Take Action.

Take the insight you’ve gained from your mentor and put it to use. See how far it takes you. Usually when we take a first step, we can then see far enough to take the next one. After you’ve taken action, you may have more questions. At this point it may be appropriate to check in with a mentor again, either the same one or another. But try to utilize your own research ability first – there’s a lot of information available at the click of a mouse!

Is there a professional mentoring program in place at your job? Read my post next week to learn how to start a professional mentoring program for your organization.

What area is “mentor-worthy” for you right now?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • John

    Great thoughts. Thanks for mentoring me on mentoring. I have had many mentors along the way, and some of them did not even know they were mentors, and if they had they would have been too humble to admit it.

    The key here is not only having a mentor, but being tuned into those lessons that come our way everyday from people we would not expect. The manager of our local grocery store that goes the extra mile in customer service, the young man or woman at the fat food drive through that says, “have a great day” and you know they really mean it, or more important recognizing the person that comes across our path that may just need a word of encouragement. In recent years, I have been much more proactive when I see these behaviors and personally complement the person and if time allows to go further and ask them, What makes you act or perform this way? If it is a work environment, What in your work environment allows you to serve in such a positive way?

    Bill Hybels, the Pastor of Willow Creek Church wrote the book “The Power of a Whisper.” This book focuses how we can listen and act upon those small promptings that nudge us to do something to better someone else’s life or make changes in our own that can have significant impact. Since I have been looking and listening for those promptings, my life has been a lot more full of opportunities to feed into others lives, and be fed by those that know things I don’t.

    I am thankful for the people God has placed in my life that have caused me to consider alternatives that I have not thought of, and take risks that I may not have taken. Life is indeed an adventure!

    • John, with all your “keys” maybe you’re a mentor and you don’t even know it? I picked up the Hybels book you mentioned on Kindle.

  • One approach that has worked for me isn’t to ask people to be a mentor (like you said at the end). Instead, I’ll ask to just pick their brain. Just a one-time thing. And if it works out, then another time. Pretty soon, they’ve grown into a mentor.

    • Me too! Another benefit is that you can have LOTS of mentors.

  • Insightful post. I have learned to not wait the time of the person mentoring you so having questions prepared can be essential. I’m going to start coach and speak this year so getting a mentor who has already done what I want to do can benefit me. I have one person I can talk with/run ideas by who is an author and professional speaker, so that helps.

    • That’s terrific, Dan. Looks like you are taking some pretty big steps in your influence these days. Are you going through a coach training program? I met some of the best leaders I know during mine. A friend and I are working on some independent projects, so I got to make a couple calls to “mentors” of mine who have been there and got some great input.

  • I’d also not to forget that we have access to an unlimited number of mentors and coaches through books – at least that has been my experience. Of course, the real live mentor is often even better… I’d suggest picking up the tab if you go to lunch or coffee – and love the reminders not to waste their time. I think we often overestimate other people’s desire to help US.

    • You’re right Tom, it’s always good to be an easy and fun person to mentor. If it’s a lousy experience for the mentor, they won’t want to spend time with us again and probably with other people too!

  • Interesting thoughts. I love the line “Mentors help us go further faster.” That pretty much sums it up.

    I’d say the area of speaking is mine right now. I want to get into that but have no experience there. That and many others of course, but it’s probably the biggest of my goals at this point.

    • Excellent, Jared – myself and 270,000 others would put in a strong plug for Toastmasters (if you haven’t considered that already). I put some of the benefits in this post: http://www.nathanmagnuson.com/six-reasons-you-should-give-public-speeches/. And FYI, I received probably the best quote on public speaking from my consultant friend Joe Denner in the comments section – good luck!

      • Thanks Nathan for the tips! I have heard of it and have one in my town but it’s at a time I can’t attend at the moment. I do hope to get involved eventually though. Thanks for the link as well!