The best mentors do these 5 things

Mentors often impact their mentee’s career in a life-changing way. Because of this profound influence, they have a responsibility to embody certain characteristics and behaviors.

How do they excel in mentoring leadership?

And what steps can they follow to ensure a successful relationship?

Nancy Girres, executive coach and peer advisory board facilitator, and Steve Sager, a Vistage Chair, share their insights on the best mentoring practices.

Why mentors matter

Mentors help develop current and future leaders while acting as a trusted resource. A skilled mentor helps others “see something that they didn’t even know was possible inside themselves,” says Girres.

Research confirms that mentors make a difference. According to a 2019 survey by CNBC and SurveyMonkey, 91% of workers who have a mentor reported being satisfied with their jobs. In the August 2020 Vistage CEO Confidence Index survey, 86% of CEOs said that mentors are a critical component of their career accomplishments.

Mentoring and leadership skills

An effective mentor focuses on both professional and personal development. They help mentees build qualities like confidence and competence — vital characteristics of a great leader.

Sager explains that mentors encourage confidence by pointing out successes. They can also help with goal setting and planning.

“We can get great confidence just by going through the thought process of planning,” he says.

A mentor can help identify gaps or missing skills “that would completely open a door that’s not open now,” Girres says. What’s missing could be a lack of confidence, “or something that I see in the way you show up in your body language — little things like eye contact.”

5 things the best mentors do

Mentoring leadership requires intentional action. While each mentor has their own experience and personality to draw from, there are common behaviors that yield effective results. Here are five things great mentors do.

1. Focus on the relationship

For Sager, a strong relationship is the key to a successful mentorship.

“The role that the mentor has to play is that of having a strong relationship, and really understanding what the vision is, and what the goals and challenges are of the individual they’re working with,” he says.

To facilitate a strong relationship, the mentor should foster trust, openness, and a willingness for both parties to be vulnerable.

Mentors must also focus on what Sager calls “empathetic accountability.” He holds his mentees responsible while supporting and understanding their challenges.

Girres says that chemistry is a vital component of this relationship and can be built through shared values.

“We connect easily because we see the world the same way,” she explains. “If the core values aren’t the same and we don’t connect, we can’t build trust.”

2. Challenge mentees

Mentors challenge their mentees to take crucial risks, which Girres compares to learning to ski or snowboard.

“If you didn’t fall down, you probably weren’t pushing enough,” she says. If you play it safe, you won’t advance, whether you’re skiing or leading a company. “To become an expert, you have to push the edges, and you have to fail.”

One thing great mentors don’t do is give their mentees the answers. Girres embodies this quality by asking mentors questions that lead them to their own discoveries.

Sager believes that a good mentor has to be supportive while challenging their client.

“A good mentor has to do both,” he says. They should offer empathy while calling out behaviors or mindsets that prevent them from moving forward.

3. Share their experience

Girres explains that the primary way she builds trust with a mentee is by sharing her own mistakes.

“Probably even more than I share my wins, I’ll talk about the ways that I failed. Like, ‘If I could have a do-over, here’s three mistakes that I made and how I can help you prevent those mistakes,’” she says.

Sager stresses that there’s a balance to sharing your experience without making the conversation about yourself. “I think this is part of the magic and the chemistry [of mentorship], is knowing when to insert those points.” He says to use your own experiences as a tool to help your mentee.

“Rather than saying ‘me too, aren’t we alike,’ you’re saying ‘I hear you.’”

4. Inspire passion and servant leadership

The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership states that servant leaders “place the primary emphasis on the well-being of those being served.” This style is very different from a leader-first mentality.

Sager says that if a mentor isn’t focused on serving others, their work suffers.

“If we’re in this for some ulterior motive, it reveals itself very quickly,” he says. “Either in the quality of the work or the energy and the heart we bring to it.”

By emphasizing service, mentors can inspire a passion for helping others. Servant leadership can also make the work rewarding for mentors. “I don’t know anything better than doing the work that I do,” says Girres.

5. Possess a growth mindset

The best mentors have a growth mindset and continue to expand their knowledge as they inspire their mentees to do the same.

“I don’t know how you stay relevant if you’re not always learning and growing,” says Girres. She feels that mentors have a responsibility to stay in tune with topics and resources relating to leadership.

Sager agrees. “There’s nothing more inspirational to a person on a team — or a person seeking guidance — than to see the leader invest in themselves.”

Doing these five things is one sign of an effective, inspiring mentor. They’re also things that Vistage Chairs do. “If you do these kinds of things and have this desire and passion for helping others achieve their best version of themselves, that, in a sense, is what Vistage Chairing is all about,” says Girres.

Sager says that when a Vistage Chair takes these actions, “we have an amazing group of individuals who are committed to each other, to work with and for each other, in a way that produces results.”