While mentoring relationships often focus on a mentoring plan with specific objectives, the true goal of mentorship is to provide mentorees the skills and confidence they need to proactively pursue their goals, now and in the future. When mentoring pairs recognize their plan as a starting point rather than the full extent of what can be achieved in their partnership, they lay the groundwork for empowering mentoring.
The word “empower” means to give someone the authority or power to do something, or to make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life. When mentorees feel empowered, they believe in themselves and their ability to chart and steer their own professional path. Done well, mentoring can empower mentorees to recognize and leverage their strengths and resources, and to feel confident stepping into the unknown or uncertain and navigating barriers and challenges.
Below are key mentoring behaviors that empower mentorees:
Develop trust. The cornerstone of a strong mentoring partnership—is trust. For mentoring to be effective, both parties must feel they can be open and honest. Mentorees need to feel safe sharing their goals, questions, challenges, and concerns. They must believe that they can trust their mentor’s guidance and advice. Conversely, mentors need to feel safe sharing their experiences, lessons learned, and feedback. They need to know that their mentoree will respect and consider their input. While it takes time to develop trust, mentors can accelerate this process by being brave enough to “go first,” modeling trust and vulnerability. By listening proactively, sharing openly, and being fully present, mentors foster safe environment for the mentoree to reciprocate.
Balance direction and support. Mentorees often come to the mentoring relationship with at least a vague sense of where they want to go and how to get there. While some may need direction and guidance to get moving or overcome a roadblock, many are also (consciously or subconsciously) looking for an added layer of support. It is important for mentors to provide both, and to do so in a way that empowers the mentoree to do the heavy lifting on their own with the reassurance that their mentor is there to spot them. For example, rather than outlining the steps a mentoree will need to take to accomplish a specific goal, mentors guide the mentoree to develop their own list, identify potential roadblocks and brainstorm ways to get past them. The mentor can still provide direction, but in a supporting role that places the mentoree in the driver’s seat and places the responsibility for decision-making squarely on their shoulders. The mentoree learns how to map their own path forward, while developing crucial skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and risk assessment.
Ask, don’t tell. In the same vein as balancing direction and support, asking rather than telling creates opportunities for mentorees to lead—and trust—themselves. This concept can be challenging for mentors, who often look forward to sharing their experiences and offering advice and guidance. But empowering often means doing more listening than telling. Asking questions forces the mentoree to think critically about their plans and perceptions. Why do you want to achieve that goal? What do you hope to gain? What are some possible outcomes? Mentors can use questioning to better understand their mentoree, but they can also ask questions intended to nudge their mentoree toward discovering new ideas, potential blind spots, or alternate courses of action. While mentors will share their anecdotes, advice, and feedback during the relationship, empowering mentors will commit more time to serving as a sounding board than offering up their own opinions.
Offer feedback. When it is time to talk, feedback is a powerful tool for empowering mentorees. Effective feedback can inspire, uplift, and motivate. It can also increase self-awareness and confidence. In “Seven Characteristics (and Six Tools) That Support Meaningful Feedback,” Professor Esther Ntuli writes that effective feedback is constructive (focuses on instruction rather than correction), specific, measurable, sensitive (avoids negative language), balanced (points out strengths and weaknesses), and applicable. Mentors are in a unique position to provide meaningful and effective feedback because they have the full picture of where the mentoree is and where they hope to end up. They are privy to the mentoree’s goals, challenges, fears, concerns, and so on. This allows them to evaluate the mentoree through a wider lens and thus provide feedback that speaks to the bigger picture and overarching themes.
Share information and resources. Mentors can also set the stage for continuous growth and development by demonstrating how to obtain information and resources in support of accomplishing a goal. Mentors empower mentorees by helping them broaden their professional network and connecting them with situational mentors, then encouraging them to continue to grow those networks and relationships on their own. The more expansive the mentoree’s network, the more connected they will be to the bigger picture and the more information they will receive. And the more they interact with situational mentors, the more comfortable they will be reaching out to subject matter experts when they have questions or a request. Understanding what resources are available and how to ask for them is a mentoring outcome that will have a lasting impact.