Tips for Forging Successful Mentoring Relationships

We are all searching for meaning in our lives and work. Forging coaching and mentoring relationships can be wonderful ways to examine and improve ourselves, as well as find greater meaning in what we do.

There are subtle distinctions between coaching and mentoring. Coaching is often formalized with performance goals and tasks related to a career. Mentoring usually has no agenda and can be life-focused as well as job-focused. Often biased in your favor, mentors are not as neutral as coaches and should exhibit a power-free relationship. No matter the differences, both coaching and mentoring provide reflective learning opportunities for employees and mentees.

As a hospital leader, cultivate an atmosphere conducive to productive coaching and mentoring. These practices are key:

• Make mentoring a business strategy. Employees are more productive, have more job satisfaction and are more loyal if they have mentoring or coaching experiences.

• Give different generations opportunities to learn from each other. Great knowledge transfer is possible when these generations talk with each other in a noncompetitive and nurturing environment. Baby boomer mentors have volumes of experience and information to share, while younger mentees can teach technology and multitasking skills.

• Allow talented managers a new way to shine by opening up avenues for them to share knowledge, skills and even life lessons to others.

How to Find a Mentor

Research in 1995 by George Dreher of Indiana University and Taylor Cox of the University of Michigan found that MBA graduates who had established mentoring relationships had an annual compensation advantage of $22,454 compared to those without mentoring relationships. While your motivation may not be money, if you have decided you need a mentor, how might you find one?

First, identify why you need one. Do you need connections or visibility in your industry? Are there gaps in your knowledge that a mentor might help you fill? Do you need help and support for family or work pressures?

Make a list of key attributes based on your need, and think about who might be able to assist you in finding a mentor. With a few people in mind, create an outreach plan.

Ask your human resources department if there’s a corporate mentoring initiative, or volunteer to help start one. Network at conferences and seminars and ask for referrals within industry groups. Approach a senior leader in your organization. Use social media to find highly respected people who might help.

Once you have your list of possible mentors, decide how you will introduce yourself to request the mentoring relationship. Contact the potential mentor, giving a brief introduction on why you thought this person would be a good match. Make a case for areas you’d like to focus on that might benefit the mentor in return.

How to Be a Supportive Mentor

If you are a mentor, you have four important mandates:

1. Create a supportive climate for dialogue. Trust building and open communication are essential. Because you and your mentee may be from different generations, experience levels and styles, be willing to learn from each other.

2. Practice good listening. Ask open-ended questions such as, “How did you come to be a supply chain manager? What got you here? What are some of your career goals?” Don’t become judgmental, bossy or too action-oriented when you hear the answers. The time for advice and direction will come later.

3. Be a person your mentee can count on. If you say you’ll make a call for him or write a recommendation, make sure you do it. If you set a weekly check-in call or a once-a-month coffee date, work hard to keep those commitments. If your schedule one month is too busy to meet in person, meet virtually over Skype or by phone. Make the effort; it will be appreciated.

4. Provide an environment for “clear talk.” Provide helpful feedback about the mentee’s strengths and illustrate how you see her using them. If there’s an area that needs improvement, help with goal setting. Negative feedback on personality styles is rarely helpful; instead, search for ways to improve behaviors that are appropriate within the organization.

Marshall Goldsmith, a brilliant business mind who crosses the country to coach top business leaders, gives four additional tips for coaches. (His site,, offers free coaching materials.)

• Let go of the past. Bringing it up demoralizes people who are trying to change.

• Be helpful and supportive, not cynical, sarcastic or judgmental. Enlist help from other stakeholders to help the person improve.

• Tell the truth.

• Pick something to improve yourself. Make the process “two-way” instead of “one-way.”

In my work with Belmont University’s Executive Leadership Experience, I coach two remarkable leaders, both identified by their executives as highly capable and “on the way up” in their organizations. We meet occasionally and talk on the phone weekly, not in long detailed talks, but in specific, quick “feed-forward” conversations. (Golsdmith calls these conversations feed-forward because the past cannot be changed, but the future can be improved.) These leaders and I hold each other mutually accountable for some of the tasks we’ve committed to. They ask me how I’m doing on improvements I’ve targeted, and I ask them what they have done this week to achieve their goals. We make progress together.

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Author Information

Susan Williams, PhD

Williams is professor of management at Belmont University’s Jack C. Massey Graduate School of Business, and she also serves Belmont’s Center for Executive Education as a curriculum designer and faculty member. Her teaching interests include ethical decision making, continuous improvement and strategic thinking. More Articles by This Author »