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What Does It Take to Be an Effective Mentor?

What Does It Take to Be an Effective Mentor?

Mentors are invaluable. It doesn't matter who you are, your career field, position, organization, or sector—research continues to show that the benefits of being and having a mentor are vast for all involved.  

Being asked to mentor a colleague, student, or young professional is an honor. Not only does it benefit the mentee, but the professional rewards go both ways. According to Forbes, both mentors and mentees were approximately 20% more likely to get a raise. Further, mentors were six times more likely to be promoted and nearly 25% more likely to receive a raise than those who did not mentor others. 

Countless studies have backed up the positive effects mentoring can have both personally and professionally in areas like confidence, mental health, and even the likelihood of a promotion. 

There are two distinct types of mentoring: formal and informal.  

Formal mentoring: 

  • Is often initiated by the employer, according to the research article "Formal mentoring in nonprofit organizations." However, employees, team members, volunteers, and others often initiate mentoring relationships outside the organization. Sometimes, an organization may feel mentorship relationships should happen organically, putting the responsibility of career development on employees. While this doesn't make it impossible for people to develop and benefit from these relationships, it can make it more challenging.

  • Is structured. There are procedures and benchmarks in place based on goals and objectives defined by the mentee or organization. 

  • Is typically time-bound. This relationship can last a few weeks, a few months, or longer, but the timeframe is specified, though it can always be modified later. 

Informal mentoring: 

  • Can be intentional or unintentional. This type of mentoring is carried out spontaneously and is typically self-selected. For example, if an employee finds a peer or leader they trust and rely on for guidance through challenges. Though they may never put a title to it, this is a mentoring relationship.

  • May be conducted with individuals or groups. Professional forums or communities, whether online or in person, can be considered informal mentoring when interactions provide insightful learning experiences for the participants. Everyone can be a mentor and can develop themselves professionally, both as a leader and employee.

  • Is less structured. Commonly, because these relationships are more organic, there are no set rules from the employer, but instead may have a loose structure and may not be time-bound like formal mentorships.

It's important to note that a mentor differs from a coach or sponsor. In general, "a coach listens to you, a mentor advises you, and a sponsor talks about and acts for you." Coaches may not specialize in the same area as their up-and-comers but are more focused on developing leadership skills. In contrast, mentors advise and counsel based on their capabilities and perspectives in the sector or role. A sponsor is an established leader with a broad network who can help directly shape their mentee's career path. 

"A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself," Oprah Winfrey.

What Does Being a Mentor Entail?

Being asked to be a mentor means the requester values your thought leadership and expertise in your field. Ultimately, the mentee is asking for your time, knowledge, and insights as they advance in their career. If you accept a mentorship role, you will be someone's advisor. Your mentee will come to you for guidance and resources to help them solve professional challenges. 

Before you agree to mentor someone, there are a few things to consider:

  • What do you hope to get out of a mentoring relationship? Mentoring is a form of giving back. By sharing your expertise and experience, you're not only helping someone advance professionally, but you may even feel a higher sense of job satisfaction. That said, you must be willing to commit to the relationship and your mentee's goals and objectives.

  • Do you have the time to devote to a mentee? It's OK to say no to being a mentor if you don't have the capacity. It's better to decline the request upfront than to commit and not follow through. Before accepting a mentorship role, make sure you can agree to your mentee's meeting schedule for the entire duration.

  • Do you have the right expertise? Ensure you can guide your mentee in meeting their goals. Have them set meeting agendas, so you can adequately prepare and make the most of your time together. If you don't think you have the right skills or background to help them, let them know up front so they can find someone who does. 

  • Is your potential mentee up for the challenge? Importantly, strive to ensure your mentee is willing to learn rather than just be validated and open to new experiences and constructive feedback. You don't have to have the same ideologies and methods—that's part of what makes the relationship successful—but a strong desire to learn and improve is an important attribute for any mentee. 

Characteristics of an Effective Mentor

While each mentoring relationship may look a little different, there are some universal characteristics you should hone before you're ready to take on a mentee.    

  1. You take a personal interest in your mentee and their success.
    A mentor has a passion for helping others achieve their goals and potential. This is a big benefit to those they decide to take on as mentees, as 84% of people become proficient in their roles faster under mentor guidance, Harvard Business Review reported.

    Although the priority may be helping your mentees recognize and reach their full potential professionally, no one lives in a bubble. A person's personal and professional lives often intersect, and mentors should make an effort to demonstrate interest and consideration for their mentee's well-being on a more personal level. 

  2. You're able to share constructive criticism.
    The role of a mentor requires complete honesty and transparency. Without these attributes, expectations, feedback, concerns, and even praise can quickly become muddy and, therefore, less effective. Mentors are there to help guide their mentees through constructive feedback, and in the role, you should regularly provide feedback in a way that promotes learning and growth.   

  3. You're an effective listener.
    We all know how important it is to have good listening skills, but this may be even more important in the role of a mentor. Mentors must genuinely listen and understand their mentees to have productive and engaging meetings, including non-verbal signals such as body language and tone. 
  4. You share your wisdom freely.
    A CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness Survey revealed that 71% of employees with a mentor say their company provides them with excellent or good opportunities to advance their career. In comparison, just 47% of those without a mentor say the same. Having a mentor who knows the ins and outs of an organization is invaluable but worth nothing if that knowledge isn't shared freely. If your mentee is in the same organization as you, it's your responsibility to help them avoid common pitfalls and learn from any mistakes you've encountered. 

When both the mentor and mentee have similar visions, the relationship can grow into something gratifying for both parties. 

Potential Challenges of Mentoring in the Nonprofit Sector

In the nonprofit sector, there are a number of barriers to formal mentoring, as authors Hanna Bortnowska and Bartosz outlined in their research article. These include: 

  • A lack of budget for a formal program. 
  • Few mentors who are familiar with the specific organization and its needs. 
  • A lack of knowledge about mentoring in nonprofit organizations. 
  • "Fear of introducing formalized techniques associated with the commercial sector."
  • Time constraints and irregular schedules of those who volunteer or work in the sector. 

Still, "Despite the presented difficulties, it is worth promoting formal mentoring in nonprofit entities and persuading the managers to apply it in their organizations," the article notes. 

If you find that you're eager to learn in the nonprofit sector, but your organization doesn't offer a formal program, it will benefit you to seek out an informal mentor. Be sure to share this desire with the organizational leaders, as it could be the push they need to start a formal program, and they may even have suggestions or connections who could help you develop in your role and further benefit the organization overall.

Finding a model that works for you as a mentor, the mentees, and the organization is key to ensuring a successful relationship that benefits everyone involved.



Impact Opportunity would like to thank Windy Souders and Karen Butterfield of KE Butterfield, LLC., a communications firm, for their work in writing this article.