Mentorship: The kindness of critique

The limits of kudos and the strength of honesty in mentorship


Kim Jenson is well aware of the impact mentorship can have on a career – it made all the difference in her own trajectory. She also knows that a good mentor is much more than a cheerleader. “The hardest words to say as a mentor can be the most important,” she said. Validation is part of the mentoring relationship, but constructive criticism from a place of respect and care can help a protégée break through the internal blocks holding her back.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be in a position to be a mentor more times than I can count,” Jenson said. “I enjoy mentorship so much – I enjoy the learning that occurs going both ways. To be a meaningful mentor, you have to listen well, but you also have to be transparent and honest.”

At its best, mentoring is an active role: The duty of a mentor isn’t only to bestow one’s protégée with sage advice when asked but to help her discover her goals and equip her with resources to pursue them. This takes a real investment of time. For financial advisers, this may seem like a familiar playbook – successful mentoring is similar to the work that goes into making client relationships strong.

Mentorship has great potential to be a multifaceted relationship. In its “Mentorship Basics”, the National Center for Women & Information Technology in partnership with the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology states that a mentor may fulfil all or a combination of these roles:

Advocate – Provides her protégée exposure within the organisation
Resource gatherer – Seeks out learning and experiential opportunities that may benefit her protégée
Role model – Offers candid insight into her own success and leads by example
Adviser – Gives advice regarding performance and offers institutional and professional wisdom
Coach – Guides her protégée in learning new skills or acting in a new role
Protector – Helps her protégée avoid the things, like taking a wrong career move or getting bogged down in an assignment with no exit plan, that might derail her on the route to her goals
Supporter – Listens well, provides organisational context, acknowledges disappointments and celebrates successes

The adviser role can lead to the most difficult moments, Jenson said. “It’s much easier to give positive feedback, but it doesn’t help if that’s all they get,” she said. “It makes a difference when you can provide insight about their obstacles, things that may not be working well and possible derailers.

“Think how valuable it is when someone who cares about you – who you trust and respect – provides guidance that can sting a little but can unleash your success. It’s worth it. It’s worth the discomfort for both of us, I have found.”

A disciplined approach to mentoring can mitigate the discomfort. Doctors Vineet Chopra and Sanjay Saint, writing from their perspectives in academic medicine for the Harvard Business Review, said it’s important to “run a tight ship.”

Set expectations, set boundaries, build a regular cadence of communication with your protégée and make sure you can get behind her goals, they wrote. If you find it difficult to believe in her mission, you may not be the right mentor. It’s better to acknowledge that up front.

Jenson concurred – you can’t go into it half-heartedly.

“The best mentoring relationships are where both parties learn from each other,” Jenson said, “but as a mentor, you have to be in it, you have to be on task for the mentee. Some people believe we can keep people engaged by adding money and titles, which only go so far. To be a great mentor, you have to want to see that person grow. You have to want to see them fly, to achieve their own objectives and dreams.

“You really have to care.”

A group approach


Mentorship doesn’t have to be a one-on-one relationship. Considering time constraints, economic specialisation and the itinerant nature of the modern professional workforce, it can be beneficial to the mentored and to the organisation that a protégée be supported by multiple viewpoints. Many companies now host networking circles to help meet this need, including groups for women and young professionals.

A mentor’s boon


Mentorship takes time, and in some cases will take sacrifice when a star member of the team makes her next step.

That’s why it’s important to recognise the benefits of their efforts, wrote the National Center for Women & Information Technology and the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology. While the organisations are focused on women in tech, their advice is pertinent for addressing challenges across the economy.

Among the benefits:
– Mentors increase their own visibility across the organisation and develop new, cross-departmental relationships.
– Protégées are most commonly younger or less experienced than their mentors, giving the mentor insight into the world of the next generation of leaders.
– By reflecting on her own journey, a mentor might better focus on her goals and next steps.
– Mentoring improves employee retention, preserving institutional memory and helping the organisation get stronger. Mentors should note their involvement in their performance reviews.
– Mentoring helps you further develop interpersonal skills, making you a more effective leader, listener and contributor.

“The regards are worth the investment,” the mentorship advocacy groups wrote. “Contrary to popular belief, mentoring does not require a disproportionate investment.”

If being an advocate-resource gatherer-role model-adviser-coach-protector-supporter seems like a few facets too many, you can tailor the experience to your commitment level. Even further, you can still be a mentor by being open and available in a more informal manner, taking questions and providing guidance on an ad hoc basis.

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