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Make a Difference as a Mentor

Sept. 10, 2014
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By Jeremy Office, CFP®, ChFC, CIMA

Learn more about Jeremy on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

Socrates and Plato. Wooden and Walton. Graham and Buffett. Even Kenobi and Skywalker. Mentors have played an enormous role in the lives of some of history’s (and fiction’s) most successful people. A good mentor provides guidance and inspiration, encouraging the protégé to strive to be the best he or she can be. A good mentor can have a lasting impact on a person’s life.

The mentor I wish I had

I wish I could illustrate the importance of having a mentor by sharing with you my personal story of the mentor who changed my life—the person who helped me harness my potential and transform my vague ambitions into a successful career as an advisor and entrepreneur. But I can’t. When I was younger, I just didn’t realize how important it was to build a relationship with a professional mentor. I thought the love and wisdom of my friends and family was enough. Of course, I’m forever grateful for those relationships, which played an essential role in shaping me into the person I am today. I wouldn’t have succeeded without the support of family and friends, but I also could have benefitted from a relationship with someone who provided specific, objective career advice and professional guidance.

The truth is, being an entrepreneur is hard and risky. While I’ve been fortunate enough to make it work, having a mentor who had already conquered the same challenges I was facing might have made things a bit easier. As I grew professionally, I felt a calling to ensure that today’s youth had access to the resources that I didn’t. I wanted to help them take full advantage of their opportunities and encourage their drive to succeed, so I became a mentor myself.

The next generation of leaders needs your help

Young people today are looking for direction, just like I was. They want guidance in everything from choosing a career path to choosing the right outfit for a dream-job interview. Yet many aspiring entrepreneurs and young business professionals have few confidants whom they can ask for help. What these young people need are mentors who can act as a sounding board and offer advice that comes from experience. You can be that person. You had success as an entrepreneur. Why not help others succeed in turn?

Being a mentor means taking on a lot of responsibility. If you choose to embrace the challenge, you’ll likely find that it takes a great deal of work and time, but that it is also an incredibly valuable and rewarding experience. By entering into the relationship with the right mindset, managing expectations and having a critical eye, you’ll not only help your mentee; you’ll help yourself by enhancing your leadership skills and forging connections with the next generation of leaders. And don’t underestimate the “feel good” factor. If you’ve been searching for a way to give back to your community, this could be it.

The mindset of a mentor

The first thing I learned when I decided to become a mentor was that I had to embrace the right mindset. Over my career, I’ve mentored more than 40 young professionals, including 13 talented individuals who have participated in my firm’s Maclendon Mentorship Program. I quickly learned that when choosing to take on a mentee, understanding the intended goal of the relationship is critical. It’s all too easy to assume that as a mentor, your role is to listen to your mentee’s questions and then answer them. In reality, you may end up doing the most good when you provide information or support that the mentee didn’t even realize was needed.

To be able to do that, you need to be able to evaluate your mentee’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as your own. In what areas does a potential mentee need the most support? In what areas are you best able to provide guidance? Just because you and a prospective mentee share similar career interests doesn’t mean that you’ll be a good mentor to them. In some cases, you may find that the skills you possess don’t fit with a particular individual. At that point, you may want to suggest other resources that may be more helpful.

Setting expectations and boundaries

Just as having a proper mindset prepares mentors for a fruitful relationship, setting and managing expectations for your mentor-mentee relationship is essential. Be clear about what guidance you can and can’t offer. Are you willing to consider this person for an internship or other employment? Review their résumé? Introduce them to your network? Serve as a reference or write a letter of recommendation?

Setting clear boundaries is also important. If your mentorship relationship is more formal (as is the case with our Maclendon Mentorship Program) this may be easy to do, since most of the mentoring will happen in your office or other professional setting. If the relationship is more casual, you may need to make a little extra effort to set boundaries, such as meeting for coffee during the day, rather than drinks in the evening, or connecting on LinkedIn rather than Facebook.

A critical eye

In order to provide real value, you must be able to able to provide constructive criticism to your mentee. This can include guidance on their professional skills (they may need an extra class or training in a certain area), as well as more personal issues. Do they have a weak handshake? Do they make poor decisions under pressure? When you do criticize, make sure you follow it up with suggestions for improvement. Most people genuinely appreciate these comments, provided they are delivered in a supportive way.

I am still learning

One of my favorite quotes is from Michelangelo: Ancora imparo. It can be translated as, “I am still learning.” For me, it’s a reminder that the learning process never ends. I believe that even mentors should take this idea to heart and commit to a life of continued education, which can include being mentored in turn. Think you’re too old to have your own mentor? Mentors and mentees can be any age. You may find that a younger mentor has valuable insights you can benefit from. Also, don’t assume that you have to have a face-to-face relationship with your mentor. A mentor is anyone you can learn from. The lessons learned in a mentoring relationship can last a lifetime and change the way you see the world. Seize that opportunity and become a mentor (or mentee) today.