Mentoring Best Practices

Some ideas to help cultivate and refine a mentoring relationship in practice

Why Mentoring?

You've always had a mentor. Even if you were unaware of the fact, you weren't born with all the knowledge you know today. Of course, a large part of it came from your own efforts, also known as self-learning. Some of it may have come from professional educators. But what was that, making things stick and cultivating your interest in the subjects you are passionate about (or at least interested in, to some extent)?

Mentors aren't always going about with this label on them. Sometimes it's a relative or friend who acts as a mentor. Other times it's a more seasoned colleague or even a supervisor. Maybe even some virtuoso who gives workshops from time to time. Ideally, a mentor is someone who is there for a longer time. In any case, a mentor is someone who impacts you in a meaningful and lasting way, inspiring you in a way to learn. Perhaps even go deeper into what you learn, by feeding that internal flame of knowledge that burns in all of us. If you have had an interest in learning, chances are that a mentor appeared even if you weren't aware. After all, it's the mentee that makes mentors relevant and a value-add in the world of learning.

What does a good mentor look like?

With all those experts branding themselves as mentors, it's often hard to discern who is a good mentor and opt for a mentorship with them. Surely you can learn from anyone around you if you are open to learning, but wouldn't it be better if you made the most of your time and efforts by teaming up with mentors who have the most to offer to you?

Intuitively you usually get a sense of who is a good mentor for you. When your intuition is taking a break, however, you can try to assess someone methodically before committing to a mentorship with them. Namely, you can look for these characteristics in them:

1. Willingness to help. More than a willingness to share knowledge, a mentor needs to have a genuine interest in the other person’s development.

2. Inquisitiveness. You can't benefit much from a mentor who is a walking encyclopedia! This person must have a genuine interest in the problems you are dealing with, in your professional outlook, in your skills, and in specific strategic objectives, you wish to achieve. Naturally, since that person is probably not blessed with ESP, he'll need to ask questions and take notes based on your answers.

3. Willingness to learn and grow. It's hard to imagine a mentor who doesn't also learn and grow, trapped in a state of knowledge that is becoming increasingly obsolete. Part of mentoring is learning how to learn and being motivated to do so. One can only instill this quality through example, which is why it's so important for the mentor to embody it already.

4. Expertise in your field. This quality is often considered a given since you wouldn't want to learn from someone who doesn't know his field and has some deep understanding of the field. This doesn't always equate with many years of experience; some people are just talented and exhibit expertise from the beginning of their careers.

5. Encouragement. A mentor needs to be able to help you go beyond what you are comfortable with, encouraging you to grow and take risks. This can help you understand your limitations and gradually grow beyond them. Sometimes this is more important than a solid understanding of the math aspects of PCA or RNNs since it’s impossible to forget this encouragement once you’ve experienced it.

6. Support even beyond the meetings. Mentoring isn't a mechanical process that always fits within a bucket, a slot in someone's calendar. It's a professional relationship that goes beyond the meetings and emails. Sometimes, a mentor needs to go the extra mile, showing support beyond the technical feedback you'd expect in the regular sessions. This extra effort can be something as simple as an endorsement on a professional network or a letter of recommendation.

7. Flexibility. Life happens and often gets in the way of our mentoring endeavors. A mentor needs to acknowledge that and be flexible about things. Sometimes your job takes priority, and you can't make a meeting. It's only natural that a mentor understands that and offers alternatives instead of sticking to a rigid schedule.

8. Respect. Power games and other disrespectful behavior are all incompatible with a healthy mentorship. Just like any other relationship, mentorships have a foundation of respect. It doesn't matter if you are a CEO of a company. If you take up the role of a mentor, you need to treat others respectfully.

9. Adaptability. Just like everyone else, a mentee grows, and his learning needs to change. A good mentor sees that and adapts her approach accordingly. It's silly to treat the mentee like a newcomer throughout the mentorship. Adaptability also manifests in the diversity of challenges you may face as a mentee (e.g., work interviews) and how the mentor can employ a different tactic to help you through them.

10. Enthusiasm. Although that's relatively uncommon as a quality for mentors, it certainly helps significantly. You may take up a mentorship because you feel unmotivated and a bit off. The mentor needs to address this and help you develop a more zestful attitude towards learning. He can't learn things for you, but he can make you inspired to learn through an enthusiastic approach to mentoring.

What does a good mentee look like?

On the other side of this professional relationship, there is the mentee. This role is one best to master before attempting to become a mentor. If you are a mentor, that's something worth learning in-depth too. This way, you'll be able to instill these qualities in your proteges. After all, mentoring is much more than the transference of knowledge; it's the development of the other person's higher mental faculties and, to some extent, character. Together, these attributes form the mosaic of professionalism that every mentee aspires to embody. To do that, she first ought to cultivate as many of the following characteristics as possible. These qualities are also present in a mentor, though not always as paramount.

1. Commitment. It's hard to imagine a mentee who cannot commit. First and foremost, to learning and improving himself, but to the mentoring process also. The latter is an extension of the former but a crucial part of this journey. Being able to stick to a plan and meeting regularly with a mentor can make a world of difference in the whole relationship and drive many benefits for everyone involved.

2. Willingness to learn and grow. Just like the mentor, the mentee needs to share this impetus of learning and growing. Regardless of where she is in her career, she needs to be able to have at least some curiosity about the field she is in and her work prospects. This curiosity comes naturally to newcomers in the field, but it's also present in some seasoned professionals. Otherwise, there wouldn't be so many advanced books and courses available.

3. Attitude of excellence. This doesn't mean that the mentee needs to be excellent (such rare individuals may not need mentoring much, to begin with!). Excellence is also an attitude, a positive approach to the challenges faced, and a willingness to do your best, no matter what. In essence, it is an expression of the Total Quality Management principles, but on a personal level.

4. Gratitude. This quality is also very useful because it helps strengthen the bond between the mentor and the mentee. It's also positive feedback for the mentor and a source of encouragement for newer mentors. Also, it's been shown that gratitude is correlated to a happier existence, so it doesn't hurt, for sure.

5. Inquisitiveness. The mentor may know plenty of essential facts and may have a good idea of how to help the mentee, but the latter is the person driving the mentoring session. He does that mainly through questions and follow-up questions. It's like an informational interview with the difference that you heavily rely on the information you obtain this way to tackle a burning problem. Inquisitiveness also creates a sense of flow in the conversations with the mentor and makes it more engaging.

6. Organization. Although a mentor may help keep the sessions in order and provide a level of organization to whatever material is involved, the mentee needs to be organized too, and contribute to the whole matter. This organization can also allow the mentorship to focus on the more subtle aspects of the topics discussed instead of spending lots of time on the knowledge structure involved to keep things tidy.

7. Discipline. It takes a lot of discipline to overcome the challenging parts of this journey. Sometimes one doesn't feel inspired or motivated, and the mentor can only do so much. So, having a sense of discipline can help the mentee get through these tough times and stay on course. A good mentor tends to notice and appreciate that in a mentee as this quality enables a better partnership.

8. Respect. Naturally, respect has to go both ways for a relationship to work. So, having respect as a mentee is a big plus as it makes this professional partnership smoother and more conducive to success. Exhibiting this quality is also a chance to practice this quality in other social situations.

9. Genuine care for the field. Caring about the field is a good predictor of success in that field and a wholesome mentoring relationship. So, if a mentee has this quality, chances are that things will be smoother in this partnership, not to mention more fulfilling.

10. Flexibility. Things often come up also in the mentor's life, such as impromptu meetings and other time-sensitive commitments. So, being flexible about the mentoring sessions can be handy, especially during these times of uncertainty. Rigidity in the schedule doesn't help anyone in the long run.

Some noteworthy requirements for successful mentoring

Beyond all these fundamental qualities, certain logistics are best-taken care of sooner rather than later. For instance, it's essential to have a rhythm in your meetings (it doesn't have to be very frequent). As long as you can meet regularly, you can turn a one-time information interview into a professional relationship that can be valuable for everyone involved.

What’s more, laying down the expectations of the mentorship is something fundamental that's best to sort out from the very beginning so that everyone is on the same page. This matter creates a mental framework that can cultivate consistency and integrity in the relationship. That's particularly useful if you plan to have a mentorship without a predefined duration.

Additionally, some long-term requirements also present themselves when it comes to mentoring. For example, you need to have a long-term goal and some milestones whenever applicable. The short-term objectives are handy too, but the long-term ones are what can make the mentorship more impactful.

Moreover, a sense of self-sufficiency and independence is paramount. You don't want to be attached to the other person as, just like every professional relationship, a mentorship has an end too. Realizing that early on will both help you make the most of it and maintain your sense of independence as a professional and a learner in your field.

How to go about your mentoring journey from here

So, where do you go from here? First, if you are a mentee, it's good to come up with questions about the topics you are learning or experiencing in your work. These can be the starting point of your mentorship and a great way to organize your thoughts and objectives.

If you are a mentor, you can explore what your key value-adds are, so that you can maximize the benefit you can offer to your mentees. Not everyone is a well-rounded person, so there are certain strengths we need to identify before we can attempt to help anyone in a meaningful way.

Beyond all this, it’s good to have a community where you can liaise with potential mentors and mentees. The AIgents platform, particularly the community section of the site, can be a great place to start! If you prefer something more professional, perhaps something for an ongoing mentorship (regardless of your role), the MentorCruise site is also a good option.