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6 ways to be a great mentor at work (and how it helps you too)

Passing on your knowledge is important for people who are climbing the career ladder, and it can provide big benefits to the rest of the business - and you.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Mentorship programs can produce valuable gains for employees and their firms, according to research from the Harvard Business School. Mentees are more productive and more likely to climb the career ladder, which can help boost company revenues. So, what does a great mentor look like? Six business leaders tell us how you can be a great mentor to up-and-coming professionals.

1. Create the right environment

Neill Smith, head of infrastructure at The Scottish Government, says great mentors empower the people they work with.

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"My job is to make everyone the best they can be," he says. "And if that means making them more successful, letting them do cool stuff, and seeing them being promoted, then I've done my job correctly."

As a mentor, Smith says he needs to create the right environment, where he shields mentees from any blame culture.

"Sometimes people like to point the finger and don't like to make a decision because they might get it wrong," he says, speaking to ZDNET at the recent VMware Explore event in Barcelona.

"When you're a leader, if there's a problem, it needs be on you. It's nobody else's fault."

But conversely, if someone does a great job, then they need to get called out singularly and the collective team needs to be praised, too.

"That's the way you learn, and you improve," he says.

"We have a great training budget. But mentoring is not just about putting people on a training course -- it's about knowledge transfer and creating the right environment to let people flourish. I have a low attrition rate. And that's a testament to the environment and culture that we have and the cool stuff that we do."

2. Give people guidance

Thierry Martin, senior manager for data and analytics strategy at Toyota Motors Europe, says an effective mentor provides direction.

Professionals should be given guidelines to explore their options -- and that can mean allowing people to take new directions within a pre-defined pathway.

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"We have this concept of Freedom in a Box in IT, and that's where we provide the architecture, standards, data security, compliance, and the tools, and then people can experiment there and they can develop," says Martin in a video chat with ZDNET.

"So, provide direction, provide freedom, and also provide two-way feedback, which means talking to people, but also receiving input from the people you're mentoring."

3. Encourage bravery

Bev White, CEO at recruitment specialist Nash Squared, says a great mentor challenges you.

"A mentor is someone that pushes you through the door before you think you're ready," she says. "They set you up to be bolder."

White draws an analogy with the cartoon character Road Runner, who she says had no fear about running straight ahead down a road that seemed to build out from nowhere.

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"The only time the Road Runner ever got in trouble was when he looked down. And I think the mentor needs to teach the mentee how to be more like the Road Runner," she says in a one-to-one video interview with ZDNET.

"Be brave, be bold, step out, learn new things in a different way. Don't look down because looking down will only get you into trouble."

4. Identify opportunities

Roy Ben David, group director of data and analytics at finance firm Solaris, says effective mentors give people as many opportunities as possible.

Ben David has moved from e-commerce to technology and onto financial services during his career, but he says there are common elements to successful mentorship in every industry.

"I'm looking for people with potential because I get the biggest motivation when I see someone going from one starting point to a completely different stage after they've worked with me," he says, speaking to ZDNET in a video call.

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Ben David says great mentors give people an interesting challenge above and beyond the daily routine. This challenge should help people move toward their long-term career objectives. 

"I think a great mentor understands their people and starting point, what kind of goals they want for themselves, and helps them to shape their career in a better way," he says.

Importantly, Ben David says being a great mentor is something that comes with experience. "Sometimes, you have to give people advice or recommendations from your experience, and you have to help them shape their world in a completely different direction, but, in the longer term, they will see the benefit of your point of view."

5. Build support networks

Sasha Jory, CIO at Hastings Direct, says her experiences suggest that it's important to have both mentors and, most importantly, sponsors.

"Create a good network," she says. "Always be open -- do the things you say you're going to do that create an understanding of who you are in the workplace."

Jory says in a one-to-one chat with ZDNET at the London leg of Snowflake's Data Cloud World Tour that it's important to avoid negativity. If you think something needs to change, try to come up with solutions rather than just problems.

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"A mentoring group -- and also, most importantly, a sponsoring group -- can help you to navigate the politics or the challenges around some of your ideas, so that when you present them, they come across as helpful and positive," says Jory.

Sometimes your ideas won't fly; sometimes they'll meet with resistance. How you respond to that process is important.

"When you get knocked down, do you get back up again, do you learn from that process, do you try a different way of doing things, or do you go off and get really grumpy about being questioned?" she says.

"I think making the most of mentoring and sponsorship groups as an individual is about taking accountability for your behavior and trying to keep things positive and solution-focused, which means using your network to help you make the right messages land."

6. Provide benefits to everyone

Hari Ramamurthy, technology fellow at The Home Depot, says good mentorships aren't just about creating benefits for one person. Effective mentorship programs provide benefits to the mentee, the mentor, and the broader business.

"That joined-up process means ensuring there is a good understanding of where the mentee is trying to go and then being able to look for synergies across the organization in terms of tasks that are going on right now or technologies that need to be introduced," he says in a video chat with ZDNET.

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Ramamurthy says when mentors and mentees are both receiving benefits, then a mentorship program is likely to help all parties stay one step ahead.

"This joint focus is one element I found to really be a win/win setup for both the person being mentored as well as for the organization as a whole."

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