There are few relationships as intimate in your working life as the one you create when you mentor someone. There are also few partnerships as fraught with peril or as likely to veer off course and lose their effectiveness for both of you.
If you’re going to go to the trouble of finding a person you want to mentor and putting quality time into it, you really want to make sure it brings value to both parties. Here are three things to keep in mind when you’re building that unique relationship with a newer or younger colleague.
1. Be willing to recalculate.
Suppose you offer good advice, but the person you’re mentoring doesn’t take it. For instance, you may have found a certification program that you believe will be great for your protégé. You researched the program, got the company to pay for it, and made sure your protégé has the time off work to participate. A month goes by and you check back in but s/he hasn’t even started or even signed up for the training yet.
How to react? Maintain your flexibility. Like Siri, when the driver doesn’t follow the navigation instructions, simply “recalculate.” Maybe two months of heavy-duty online education is more than your mentee can deal with. There might be something going on at home, or s/he is distracted by work projects, or s/he just needs more seasoning in time management. So start with a one-hour webinar and talk about it afterward.
2. Don’t take things personally.
The mentor relationship is tricky because it requires you to care deeply about how your mentee develops. At the same time, you have to not care– or not take it personally– when your advice is not taken.
The relationship requires you to maintain a professional distance and accept that you are not melded with your protégé, and will be walking away eventually. You need to be encouraging, but here’s the challenge: you’re not there to tell a mentee how great they are. You are serving as a model and sharing the skills of reflection, maturity, and professionalism, even under duress.
So, let’s say you are working with a young person who hasn’t yet learned how to take constructive criticism, and your well-intentioned feedback is clearly hurting their feelings. Does that mean you dial it all the way back and give only praise? No, you can’t. That’s not helping them in the long run. Instead of getting frustrated that they can’t take your comments in stride, be a model to them of how people can accept criticism well.
You need to find a way to show your mentee that they are fine and accepted just the way they already are, and at the same time, that there are ways they can grow and become even better. Find video demonstrations about work situations where people are interacting constructively or observe people in similar jobs out in the community as a team, and help them evaluate them.
Show concrete examples of how well-placed criticism helps people improve. When you are the example of remaining cool and not taking things personally, they have a real-world example–you–to emulate.
3. Get them to trust you enough that they can respond honestly.
Do you ever listen to TED Talks? I heard a great one from Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project, on the subject of feedback. She points out that whenever feedback is being given out, it’s the person receiving the feedback who is actually in charge. That person “decides what they’re going to let in and whether and how they choose to change.”
Think about that for a minute. It means that you have to build not only the person’s skills and confidence, but you have to also build the person’s trust so that what you’re saying enters into their hearts and minds and they can respond authentically, without fear.
The best way to do that is to let them sit with your advice, maybe even longer than your ego can easily manage, and decide for themselves whether the path you’re suggesting to them is where they are ready to go. That’s where the respect, patience, maturity–even the professional detachment–you’ve modeled can make the difference, and you can begin to see the day where you’ll have “Arrived at Destination” together.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.