January is National Mentoring Month. Mentoring can change your life — and the lives of your mentees. Mentoring means helping less-experienced people observe, experiment with and evaluate different work strategies. And the benefits are not limited to young people. People of all ages can gain from the guidance of a more-experienced person. A mentor can help even experienced managers boost their job performance and advance their careers.

I’ve had the privilege of mentoring hundreds of people over the course of my career. With some, it consisted of a few meetings. With others, the relationship lasted over months or years, with an occasional check-in when questions arose. Those are some of the most rewarding experiences of my decades in business.

At the same time, I am grateful for two mentors whom I have occasionally mentioned: my University of Minnesota history professor, Harold Deutsch, and golf coach, Les Bolstad. Both men taught me as much about life as about their particular subjects. Over my career, I’ve had many great mentors.

Growing up, were there people in your life who encouraged you, showed you the ropes and helped you become the person you are today? Think about individuals who offered you encouragement, shared their experiences and knowledge, and sometimes just listened when you needed to talk.

Most successful people say they had mentors along the way who guided and encouraged them. For example, poet Maya Angelou cited a grade-school teacher who sparked her love of poetry; music producer Quincy Jones points to the powerful influence of musician Ray Charles; and musician Sting credits a teacher whose energy inspired a lifelong passion for learning.

Establishing the right relationship is critical to the mentor/mentee relationship. You know how important mentoring can be to younger or inexperienced employees. But how do you know if you’re cut out to be a good mentor?

Here are five key characteristics of an effective mentor:

• Commitment. Are you willing to dedicate the time and effort necessary to a mentoring relationship? You should already be involved in helping employees develop professionally.

• Courage. Do you have the courage to take risks, admit mistakes and let others do the same? You’ll have to tolerate the occasional error and use it as a learning experience.

• Curiosity. Are you hungry for knowledge? Don’t limit your answer to professional areas. If you’re always asking questions, trying to find out how things work and why, you’ll be a good mentor.

• Compassion. Are you patient with others when they make mistakes? Do you try to understand situations from the other person’s point of view? As a mentor, your job isn’t to pass judgment but to create opportunities for growth in other people.

• Communication. Explain what works for you and why. Telling a protégé what to do in a specific situation doesn’t really teach him or her much. You’ll be more effective if you communicate as explicitly as you can what strategies and techniques have worked best for you. After a meeting with a client, for instance, you might tell the protégé why you took the approach you did.

When you are on the other side of the equation, how do you go about finding a good mentor? To find the right match, look for someone with skills similar to yours but who has progressed further up the professional ladder. Don’t limit yourself to one mentor. You may want to have several mentors to help with different aspects of your life, a kind of mentoring “board of directors.” And remember, mentors change over a lifetime.

Mackay’s Moral: Show that you care with the knowledge you share.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.