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Key Elements of Effective Mentorship

Mentorship can be mutually beneficial for the mentor and mentee if they both exhibit seven key qualities

Dwayne Henry

Can you recall being a newly hired lab technician, fresh out of college, with lofty ambitions but having more questions than answers? The thought of embarking on a new career can be both exciting and daunting. The same can be said when transitioning into a new job or promotion. 

On the other hand, imagine being a lab manager who has hired plenty of fresh talent, but you notice they have no clear direction and are making avoidable mistakes due to inexperience. Mentorship could be the solution to heading off a multitude of present and potential problems.

The benefits of mentorship

Mentorship is often viewed as something someone is forced to do, or a time-consuming activity that is more beneficial to the mentee than the mentor. However, the relationship between a mentor and mentee can be highly beneficial to all individuals involved as well as extremely important to a company's employee retention. Many employees who are mentored at a workplace tend to feel more connected to their place of employment. Many mentors who guide new and/or developing employees feel a sense of accountability for and connection to the mentee’s success. This feeling of connection between mentor and mentee also creates a sense of comfortability. The mentee has someone to go to whenever said individual needs direction or an issue arises in which an experienced opinion would be valuable. These one-on-one connections between mentor and mentee create valuable relationships that give both individuals a sense of worth at the place of employment, which can in turn entice the individuals to want to stay longer and do better. 

Another beneficial aspect to mentorship is that it enables improved communication and communication skills, both of which are needed for the mentorship to be effective. Additional skills are also enhanced as the mentor and mentee  learn from and feed off each other in a symbiotic relationship.

It is important to remember that there are many ways that the mentor can learn from the mentee. For example, there could be recent technology or a skill set that the mentee may have training in that the mentor does not. This could be an opportunity for the mentor to build confidence in the mentee, as well as gain confidence themselves—all while strengthening the relationship. These positive relationships go a long way in creating a culture of mentorship as the percentage of individuals willing to be a mentor drastically increases among those who have previously been mentees. This can create an internal employee support system throughout an organization that consistently promotes mentorship. 

How to ensure a successful mentoring relationship

Now that we know why mentorship is important and beneficial, let’s take a look at what constitutes effective mentorship. It is essential that all parties involved in the mentorship be intentional and invested. This means that it is not just something you are doing out of pressure or obligation, but it is something you truly value. If this is not the case on either or both side(s), it will be very apparent. When one side does not seem invested, the other side will eventually lose interest and the whole relationship will become unproductive. 

Open communication is a second essential requirement of effective mentorship. Without proper communication from both sides, even the most well-structured and intentioned mentorship will more likely meet its demise due to misunderstandings and assumptions. For communication to be optimized, both parties need to be accessible. This may mean that weekly meetings are set up and adhered to (particularly important), as well as opportunities to touch base additionally if needed. Once accessibility has been established, all invested parties need to be approachable. Being unapproachable negates any accessibility as no one wants to have weekly meetings with someone who seems like they do not want to be there. No one is expecting a welcome party every time they see you; however, no one wants to be brushed aside or in a consistent situation in which it seems that the opposite person is not fully paying attention and is rushing to get the session over. Additionally, no one wants to approach anyone that has a negative attitude whenever confronted about something, whether the topic be positive or negative. The natural progression when this happens is the offended party tends to withdraw, hold back questions or information, and eventually stops communicating all together. This is also the reason why it is better to talk through a mistake as opposed to chastising.  If one is not careful, a mentor can scare a mentee into not wanting to share what may have occurred.  Remember that the mentee is not reporting to a mentor as their supervisor, but as an advisor. 

Another key requirement is vulnerability, which is important because it builds trust.. Mentees like to know you understand what they are going through, and true mentors like to know that they are helping you in more than just your professional journey. For this reason, it is important to share the difficulties of one's journey as well as the things that went well. It’s not helpful for mentor to act as if everything has always been a wonderful, easy road. This could create an illusion in the mentee that they must be doing something wrong because things are not going as smoothly as they “perceive” they should. The willingness to share your mistakes as you progressed in your professional journey to make sure your mentee does not make the same mistakes is vital, as it is one of the purposes of mentorship. It also does not help if the mentee is not open about difficulties being faced. No one can help advise anyone through an unknown problem. Being as vulnerable as possible about what you are experiencing, feeling, or questions you may have will enable your mentor to understand where guidance is needed. Depending on the mentor or mentee, sometimes it may be necessary to come out and ask probing questions such as, “How are things going?” or “What types of difficulties did you experience while working your way up to your position?”  A fantastic way to spark conversation as a mentor is to tell the mentee about a situation you went through, and then ask the mentee how they would have handled it before you tell them how you did. Then discuss what you did and why it did or did not work. This type of conversation can give the mentee an incitement on how to handle a potential problem before the problem presents itself or may even help them handle a current problem that has not been disclosed. The mentor may be given a fresh perspective that had not been thought of before and can be incorporated in the future, thus showing another example of how mentorship can and should be mutually beneficial. 

Being open-minded can go a long way to ensuring this. When the mentor and mentee are both open to alternative ideas and perspectives, it only increases one's knowledge base and skill set, as well as strengthens the relationship. It should not be “my way or the highway.”

Lastly, to truly ensure effective mentorship, be the mentor or mentee you would want to have. Model the behavior! Then when it is your turn to act in the opposite role you will know exactly what to expect. 

Consistently combining the previously mentioned key requirements (intention, investment, open communication, accessibility, approachability, vulnerability, and open mindedness) with collaborative goals that have realistic expectations (we want to make sure everyone is a part of the process and on the same page) will help ensure that your mentorship will have positive results that are beneficial to everyone involved. The feeling of knowing you were involved in the positive progression of another’s professional journey can be both rewarding and motivating. It can also lead to the formation of a lifelong relationship. Although it takes time and effort, the end results can be life-changing and a win-win for all.

headshot image of Dwayne Henry
Dwayne Henry

Dwayne Henry is the instructional lab manager of chemical and biological sciences at Montgomery College Takoma Park/Silver Springs Campus. Henry delivered a presentation that expanded upon the topic of effective mentorship during the 2022 Lab Manager Leadership Summit.