How to Be a Mentor (and What’s in It for You)
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How to Be a Mentor (and What’s in It for You)

Before you say, ‘I’m too busy to take on anything else,’ hear us out.

Mentor Danny Farrar
John Loomis

I want you to meet Danny Farrar. He’s a 43-year-old Army vet and single father of two young girls. He’s up at 4 a.m. every day doing chores on his Maryland farm. Then he’s off to the gym he founded (Soldierfit) and runs (13 locations) for his workout and CEO duties.

A year ago, into this maelstrom of a life, came yet another opportunity. Loud Rumor, a company specializing in fitness marketing and coaching, asked him to mentor a couple of dozen small-gym owners looking to expand their businesses.

“I jumped on it immediately,” Farrar says. “At the end of day, I’m here because people helped me.”

He adds that it’s given him a boost as much as it’s done for others. “Seeing a reflection of yourself in others reminds you that you’re actually pretty smart and talented,” he says. “So many men feel they don’t have anything to offer in terms of teaching. But we take for granted how much we know.”

Mentoring, as perceived by most midlife guys, has the reputation for being either a giant time suck or something better reserved for retirement. But Wendy Murphy, a professor of management at Babson College who has studied mentoring for two decades, says it can be a secret weapon for personal and career advancement.

There are few better ways to rise above the sea of competitive colleagues in your company than by gaining a reputation for being a leader and role model who is developing others for the organization. And if that’s not enticing enough, you might even be able to delegate some of your workload to a mentee, thus freeing you up for new challenges (or afternoon naps).

Kathy Kram, a professor emeritus of management and organizations at the Boston University Questrom School of Business, points out that you may be a mentor without even realizing it. “If there are people in your arena at work that you’ve coached, guided or supported because they have less knowledge and experience than you do, then you’ve already been mentoring but just haven’t labeled it,” she says.

If you’re not mentoring, here are six tips for getting started:

Self-assess: What do you know? Look both inside your career and out. (There may be a hobby or nonwork activity you excel at.)

Set your goals: What do you want to get out of this relationship?

Look local: Tons of online organizations offer mentoring services or help with making connections. However, Murphy and Kram recommend looking for opportunities within your company or community first.

Realize that mentoring has changed: Although face-to-face mentoring is best, especially when starting a relationship, virtual mentoring can be very effective, Murphy says. 

Younger mentees are probably more accustomed to visual learning and absorbing information in bytes (so maybe recommend short articles instead of books). Peer mentoring has also become popular, so rather than looking down the ladder to impart your knowledge, look across the workplace for colleagues you can swap expertise with. 

Some companies even promote “mentoring circles” where two or more senior execs guide groups of mentees. This reduces the risk of one-on-one relationships failing and saves time for the mentors. 

Don’t confuse mentoring with influencing: Social media followers are not mentees because there’s not much of a personal relationship there, Kram says. For the most part, influencing is a selfish act, whereas mentoring is a selfless one.

Avoid being a problem-solver: Be an enabler instead, Farrar says. “I tell my people upfront: If you’re going to bring me a problem, you also need to bring me two, three solutions you’ve already come up with. As a mentor, you want to give a hand up, not a handout. Once you show them the value of problem-solving, they’re well on their way. And when they win, you win too. It’s cool to watch them continue to evolve and grow.”

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