Often times mentoring is misconstrued or misunderstood. What exactly is it? Who is a good mentor? When and how do we do this?
After researching mentoring for 6 years for my book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, aMentee,and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America; after building a mentorship model that has continued now for 20 years; and after mentoring upwards of 2500 students over that same time, I want to share with you my favorite (and simplest) definition for mentoring:
“A mentor is an older, more experienced person who seeks to further the development of CHARACTER and COMPETENCE in a younger person.”–
Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, founder of the national Head Start program.
I recently attended a Philanthropy Roundtable conference on character and it offered me an opportunity to reflect on the significance and challenges of intergenerational relationships. I was reminded of the late Dr. Bronfenbrenner—a Professor at Cornell University, a self- acclaimed social ecologist, and one of the world’s leading scholars on developmental psychology. He spent a great deal of time researching mentorship best practices within the Japanese culture and found that youth development was profoundly impacted by these special one-to-one relationships between a youth and an unrelated older adult.
Over the course of two decades, I have had the pleasure to witness this repeatedly. In my own humble experience, I have observed six key subliminal messages that embody this same mentor/mentee bond and how the dynamic unfolds. I’ve learned this from interviewing numerous fellow mentors, particularly within the Project Based Mentoring® model I describe in the book. But, most importantly, I’ve pulled from the thousands of letters I have received from students over the course of these twenty years. (Please note below, I’ve italicized the mentor’s mindset and messaging, and followed up with typical mentee takeaways.) So let’s look a little deeper inside a mentor mentee relationship…
1) “If I did it– you can too.” Of course, the easiest way to turn off a kid is to tell them how great you are. Instead, by sharing your dead ends, your struggles, your bumps in the road, you are conveying to that mentee that he can also make it through his own peaks and valleys. To the mentee, you become a tangible, humble, and accessible example of what success can look like.
2) “I’m here to help you – you can count on me – AND, I’ll be back.” When a mentor continues to come back, to give support, and to show up, the mentor communicates – without words – that people can be reliable. To a kid, you are showing them a behavior that they may not have experienced before. That behavior is: yes, people sometimes do what they saythey are going to do.
3) “Here’s how – now you try.” Through working together on a project you might give direction or demonstrate a new method. For the youth, this offers skill development opportunities, and a new courage to try. This subliminal support can be the difference between grit and staying the course, versus walking away defeated.
4) “When you play the devil’s advocate and ask thought-provoking questions” – a mentee experiences a new level of give-and-take in this intergenerational dialogue. When trouble-shooting a project, a mentor might ask probative questions about direction, implementation or research. The student experiences a new adult back-and-forth that is respectful, yet still leads to mutual compromise. A mentee can take away a different form of interaction that mimics a work environment: how to agreeably exchange ideas without alienation and criticizing.
5) I’m not your judge,I’m not your boss, I’m not your teacher, I’m not your parent. I won’t grade you, and there is no failing. Rather, I’m a new form of adult relationship… call me your consultant. Most importantly, when I talk with you about your ideas, you are at complete liberty to rejectmy suggestions. Why? Because this is your project; and I’m here to only support and advise you. A mentee learns a new form of collaboration, a willing accountability, and a pride in ownership and decision-making.
6) Finally, by just listening, your behavior says to your mentee, “you are important—I want to hear what you have to say.”This dedication and willingness to spend time together often gives a youth a new sense of self-esteem – and with that comes motivation.
It is rare for our youth to enjoy a relationship with an adult who is not an authority figure, who is not talking down to them, telling them what to do, or where to be. I believe that with proper training, all of us can be skills-based mentors and be paying forward these six important messages in a project-oriented mentor-mentee relationship. We all can be modeling behavior that youth observe and mimic, while teaching our future leaders confidence, humility, reliability, grit, respect, collaboration, listening, and the ability to relinquish authority.
I believe we can all be mentors. By showing up, by being there, sharing your unique knowledge, youdemonstrate traits of character and behavior, all the while teaching new skills toward competency. Imagine the ripple effect of seeing youth that you have mentored gain courage and motivation to try something new – something that is not in theory or words, but is applied by “doing.” You are helping youth shape a project (that is easily within your wheelhouse) and fostering them to experience a real-world outcome. Imagine: at the end of a several-month period, your mentees will have designed a hypothesis, formulated a master plan, researched a target audience, met a timeline, and publicly defended their findings. Your mentees achieve a unique, self-directed accomplishment that can be included on their resume or college application. And most importantly, they achieve skills and behaviors that can be leveraged toward their future.
Our communities of kids and our communities of businesses desperately need —these hard and soft skills that are not necessarily being taught in schools today. I believe that Mentors can be the solution.
Patty Alper is the author of Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America (Taylor and Francis, © 2017). She is president of the Alper Portfolio Group, and a board member of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and US 2020 (a White House Initiative to build mentorship in STEM careers). She also serves on the corporate committee for STEM Connector/Million Women Mentors. Patty’s two decades of hands-on experience working with over 2500 youth in 10 schools has led her to write extensively about mentorship, and her model has brought many corporate employees to classrooms with a goal of passing on skills to the next generation. Patty is a speaker, a writer, and a consultant. Learn more at www.teachtowork.com.