Industry Market Trends

How to Be an Effective Mentor

Nov 11, 2013

The nation's workforce is undergoing a profound shift as many of today's seasoned workers reach traditional retirement age. As such, demand for professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is forecast to dramatically outpace the supply of STEM workers.

Mentoring programs can help close the generational skills divide and mitigate the projected shortage of STEM workers, according to advocates of the programs.

There will be 31 million job openings in the economy through 2020 due to baby boomer retirements, according to a report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). Between 2010 and 2020, there will be 2.6 million job vacancies in STEM occupations alone, the CEW projects.

For employers, mentoring is one of the most effective methods of attracting, retaining, and developing employees. For mentees, the process increases their knowledge and skill, and helps them develop a sense of loyalty to their employer. Participants are likely to advance their careers faster and increase their earnings.

There are also professional and personal benefits for mentors, say advocates of mentoring programs.

"You'll get as much out of it as your mentee," Rene Petrin, founder and president of Management Mentors, told ThomasNet News Career Journal.

Petrin's Boston-based consulting firm, which primarily serves Fortune 1000 businesses in virtually every industry - including high-tech, finance, and utilities - has been designing and implementing mentoring programs for more than two decades.

Petrin recently listed what he considers the benefits of serving as a mentor:

  • It is an opportunity to give back to your company;
  • It strengthens communication skills;
  • What's learned in the mentoring process can be applied to working with other staff members;
  • It can re-energize professionals in all aspects of their career;
  • Mentors often discover that they have much more knowledge and expertise than they thought;
  • Mentors often gain a great deal of satisfaction in helping someone grow personally and professionally.

In a 2006 study that explored the value of mentoring, Sun Microsystems compared the career progress of approximately 1,000 of its employees over a five-year period. The in-house researchers concluded that 25 percent of those who participated in a mentoring program received a salary increase versus only 5 percent of employees who didn't participate. Mentors were promoted six times more often than those not in the program.

Serving as mentors, STEM professionals are uniquely positioned to help foster necessary skill sets in younger professionals. Petrin offered some tips for mentors as they set about inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists:

Commit to the Relationship

One of the important things that mentors must do is honor their commitment. Research suggests that it is better to not engage in mentoring at all than to commit in a half-hearted effort and not follow through.

Petrin recommends prospective mentors ask themselves the following questions:

  • Can I commit to the time needed and agreed upon with my mentee?
  • Can I bring an objective viewpoint to our conversations?
  • Am I clear that being a mentor is about the mentee and not about me?

Communicate Regularly

Regularly scheduled communication is crucial to building a trusting mentor-mentee relationship.

"Agree upfront on how and how often you will meet and communicate between meetings. Mentoring does not require a huge time investment -- figure one to two sessions a month for 1.5 hours each," Petrin advises. "Agree on periodic check-ins to review how things are going and what should change or what should remain the same as you move forward. This should be done a few times early on in the relationship, and then you may want to do it quarterly with your partner."

Balance Honesty with Support

While mentors shouldn't hold back on encouragement and praise, they should also be honest and clear when giving feedback.

"Discuss openly and honestly your expectations of the relationship and of one another. Be honest in providing feedback," Petrin advises. "Understand that being an effective mentor is not about providing advice or solutions, but is in walking the journey with the mentee so that they find what works for them with whatever assistance the mentor can provide."

Be an Active Listener

In a mentor, "being a good listener is probably the most important quality," according to Petrin, who recommends showing empathy when listening to a mentee's challenges or letdowns.

Be Open and Flexible

Petrin recommends that mentors and mentees agree upfront on a process to negotiate any challenges or problems that occur between them during the relationship.

Get Feedback

For past or current mentors looking to improve their skills, seek feedback on what you did well and what you could improve upon.

"Ask friends and colleagues what qualities or shortcomings you may have to being a more effective mentor," Petrin suggests. "For example, if I were to mentor you, what are some of the qualities you think a mentee would find in me? What are some of the shortcomings a mentee might see in me as a mentor?"

Most educators say that the more you teach, the more you learn. Any type of teaching, including mentoring, can help the teacher/mentor develop his or her own knowledge and skills.