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UPDATED: Here to Help: How to Be a Better Mentor

Aug. 3, 2022
A good mentor can help high-performing employees reach their full potential, while a poor mentor may do the opposite. Consider these ideas to provide better guidance.

Editor’s Note: Larry Fast, our Ask the Expert – Lean Leadership columnist, has updated his advice for mentors of up-and-coming high performers. The new additions to this article, which originally ran in August 2020, are in blue. 

Webster’s dictionary defines a mentor as “a wise and faithful counselor or monitor.” A more expansive way to say it is “one who has extensive experience in life and in work, and is willing to help others develop as people, and as productive contributors of excellence in their workplace.”

Great mentors along the way can put a high-potential person’s career on a rocket ship to their full potential. Poor mentors can slow a high-potential’s progress and stunt their growth. That’s why senior leaders select and assign mentors who are among the most talented people in the organization. They are very knowledgeable about the business, have a professional demeanor, excellent communications skills and set a great example of what success looks and acts like.

In short, they become a model of what it takes to be successful in the company. Ideally, this mentor is two levels above the high-performing mentee. As the high-potential individual moves up, the next mentor should be one two levels above, and so on, right up to the C-Suite.

The Mentor’s Role

Here are a few tips about how to engage the individual. Obviously, whoever hired the high-potential employee saw potential that suggested this person could go a long way in the company. The mentor’s role is to build upon the skills and human traits already present with the new hire.

1.    Establish a personal rapport. The early days are often stressful for the mentee. A good mentor will explain the purpose of the mentoring program, and put the candidate at ease by providing patience and reassurance. Building rapport will establish trust and open dialogue. Encourage the high performer to call anytime questions arise between meetings.

2.     Establish the skillset that the high performer already has and discuss developmental needs. Ask questions such as:

a.     What have been your best experiences with college courses and why?

b.     If the individual has business experience at another company, ask for examples of the learning that transpired there. What were the pros and cons? What were your most important learnings and why? This will help the individual's indoctrination into the new company.

c.      Ask about what direction the high performer wants to go in the company, e.g., supply chain management, manufacturing, engineering, sales, whatever. Based on that….

d.     Come to an agreement on which areas of lesser strength to focus on in the short term and establish an action plan.

        i.      Hard skills. Encourage your high-performing mentee to seek out shop floor and supply chain experience. We learn by doing.        ii.      Soft skills. Urge your high-performing employee to volunteer to deliver presentations in their current position(s) at work and in the community. These skills are critical for continuing to climb the ladder in ever larger jobs. Encourage the individual to develop a rapport with marketing and salespeople as part of the team.

e.     Collaborate with the high performer and make an improvement plan.

3.     Establish accountability. Agree on how this will be measured. Typically this is accomplished with the setting and execution of annual objectives.

a.     Once you and the high-performer mentee have agreed upon expectations, it is the high performer’s responsibility to take ownership of the “to do’s.” Discuss progress at each follow-up meeting, or before if questions arise.

b.     In the beginning, I encourage meeting on a weekly basis. This strengthens the relationship and provides the mentor with early insights on how well the high performer is absorbing and acting on the agreed-upon agenda. It’s also a great way to evaluate the level of understanding and engagement.

c.      As progress becomes evident, consider moving the meetings to bi-weekly and ultimately, to monthly. In phase two, monthly meetings should be sufficient. Telephone contact becomes more important to communicate in real time.d.     Look for examples of initiative and proactive behaviors. If possible, recognize these events as they happen. Coach as appropriate.e.     Use your own experiences as teachable moments for the high performer. Describe the situation and walk through how you responded and what tools you used to get the job done. When questions arise, make it a teachable moment, but only after the mentee has had the first shot at it. Praise the good and coach up the “could be better” possibility.f.       Before you adjourn, ask the question: “Do you have any further questions or comments about today’s discussion?” Always ask this question.4.     Make special events part of the development. For example, ask the high-performing mentee to plan a major meeting in the company auditorium or cafeteria or whatever venue is available. Have them plan an upcoming customer visit or make a presentation regarding business objectives every quarter. a.     Find a workshop or seminar to supplement in-house training. My early mentor suggested I take a time management course. It’s the best advice I ever got. As one progresses up the ladder, it takes real discipline to manage time based on importance, not urgency. (Of course, some things are both important and urgent and get immediate attention!) Encourage your mentee to identify other seminars or facility visits that will help them stretch and expand their scope of understanding. Be prepared to suggest something if the mentee draws a blank.

b.     Send the high-performing mentee to a section meeting with the trade organization most appropriate for the business. Here again, my mentor sent me to a section meeting at NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturing Association). After two years of attending meetings, I was elected chair of two committees. It was a great way to meet leaders from our competitors as well as improve my technical knowledge.

c.      Take the high performer on the road with you to visit a customer. My road trip wasn’t glamorous. It was a 1.5-hour drive with the top sales leader to Fort Wayne, Indiana (I was hoping for Las Vegas). I got first- hand experience hearing the customer’s perspective on our company in general and my plant specifically. Most of it was good, but there was a delivery problem that caused me to return to work with a whole new understanding of how much grief we could cause an important customer. Quite a motivator! Nothing had more impact on how customer-centric I became after that.d.     Invite the high performer to attend part, or all, of a leadership team meeting with you. It’ll be an eye opener for the individual but also great exposure to how senior leaders think and debate and make decisions. It’s a brain stretch that will impress the mentee. It also is a powerful model to help drive aspirations. The mentee sees live and in person what it takes to one day become a member of the company leadership team.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” -- John Maxwell

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” --Kenneth Blanchard

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