Why Mentor?

One of the better and easier ways you can leave a legacy is to be a mentor to someone…or multiple someones. It costs very little, builds goodwill, and ensures that the people who seek your advice will know what you know. There is some responsibility in the role, but it need not be a source of worry.

What’s Your Excuse?

You might have several excuses for why you choose not to mentor others:

  • I don’t have the time.
  • I don’t know how.
  • I don’t want to be held responsible if my advice doesn’t work.

Making the time

I’ve made an effort not to waste too much of my mentor D2’s time. My questions for her are usually targeted and future focused. If you’re worried about another writer/editor taking up too much time, you might ask her/him to restrict their advice requests to after work. Or, as usually happens with me, I answer most of the questions I get by email, when I have time. And not everyone you help seeks a life-long mentor. Sometimes you only need to help him/her on a single, specific task. However, your assistance could be perceived as so useful/valuable that the person you helped refers you to others, and suddenly you’ve become the office Wise Woman/Man in certain circumstances. It’s not a bad position to hold. Plus, if other people know what you know, you prevent yourself from becoming a single point of failure.

Learning how

The way you become a mentor, usually, is when a younger or less experienced person identifies you as someone who knows things s/he would like to know. As a result, you’re not having to learn something new, you’re simply sharing what you already know. If you answer clearly and politely, you’re likely to be thanked and receive additional requests in the future.

On those occasions when someone asks you something you don’t know, you can play Socrates and ask questions:

  • What do you think?
  • Who is your audience/customer/end user?
  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What were you asked to do?
  • Have you asked/read other sources? What did they say?

Sometimes, in the process of asking those questions, you can get your questioner to answer her/his own question without offering any advice whatsoever. If your questioner still seeks advice (even if they know you don’t know), you can take one of the following approaches:

  • Give your best, honest answer based on what you’ve been told. And by “best,” that means you make your suggestion and then explain why you would act the way you would and what the consequences might be. Your questioner/mentee might or might not agree with you, but at least they will understand your position.
  • Ask your questioner what they would prefer to do. If they don’t know, you’ll have to go through another set of questions and answers about the circumstances. If they do know what they want to do but are uncomfortable with the outcomes, address the outcomes and discuss mitigation strategies.
  • Ask your questioner/mentee to give you a little time to look up a good answer (then follow up).
  • Remind your questioner/mentee that in the end the decision is hers/his, not yours.

And while this might seem like a given, you should be giving advice that helps your questioner succeed, professionally and ethically. You might suggest a course of action that goes outside the norms of an organization but then you should explain the risks and how to cope with them. And like a good parent, you shouldn’t offer advice that deliberately causes harm to the person asking your advice.

Taking responsibility for advice given

Honestly, any decision your questioners/mentees makes is a reflection on them, not you. However, if a) someone asks you a question with ethical or legal implications, b) you know they are likely to take your advice, and c) you give bad/unethical advice, you can be held accountable. Therefore, don’t be evil.

Another important piece of advice I would suggest to potential mentors–and this is why I am not on the motivational speaker circuit–don’t overpromise on results. For example, you might get asked career advice. The advice might not work out: e.g., the questioner might not get the job they wanted. S/he might insist that they followed your advice and the disappointment is all your fault. However, you don’t know what other circumstances surrounded their situation. They might leave out what else happened in the situation. They might lie to you. Ideally, if you’ve been working with the individual for a long time and the outcome isn’t positive, you can have an honest discussion about what went wrong and what could be done better in the future. If you give advice and “guarantee” (or disingenuously promise) a positive outcome, you’re more likely to face a disappointed mentee, which could poison or end the relationship.

You are not infallible, nor are you expected to be. As I saw someone online post recently, you’re not an expert, you’re on a journey, just like everyone else. If someone is choosing you as a mentor or source of advice, it’s because they recognize something in you–experience, wisdom, success–that they would like reflected in their own life. That doesn’t mean they expect you to solve all their problems (and if they do, set some boundaries early). It also doesn’t mean you should let your “mentor” status go to your head because, again, you’re not infallible, just someone in a position to help. It’s a bit like parenting (I say this because my mother was and is a good mentor): you’re there to help the other person do the best they can with the best advice you can offer.

May the force be with you.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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