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How to Meaningfully Mentor in a Matter of Minutes

Marty Nemko

Increasingly, managers are asked to mentor their supervisees and are expected to do it on top of everything else and without much training.

Here's a crash course on few-minute mentoring.

First, what is mentoring? It's not supervision or evaluation--those are mandated and judgmental. It's not training--that's purely instructional. Mentoring is voluntary, the intersection of coaching, listening, asking and tactfully suggesting, mainly on issues of the protege's choosing.

If you're like most managers, you'll mentor during the proverbial "managing by walking around." Yet even in those catch-as-catch-can moments, take a moment to prepare:

--Do you have a goal or simply want to hear what's on your supervisee's mind?

--If you have a goal, how can you tactfully ask about it? Put yourself in the supervisee's shoes: How would you want the question phrased?

--It's still not time to open your mouth. Look at the supervisee: Does he or she look too busy to talk? Or is he or she averting eyes? Both could be a sign that mentorship isn't welcomed.

If the person consistently hints that he or she is not interested in your mentorship, it may be wise to direct your efforts elsewhere. But let's assume otherwise. Of course, every situation is different, but here's a sample dialogue, with underlying principles noted.

Manager: Hi Mary. Hey, you had talked about doing more professional reading. Had a chance to do any?

Mary: Not really. I should though.

Manager: OK.

In this scenario, the manager realizes that pushing further would likely make the exchange feel more like evaluative supervision. He reminds Mary, the supervisee, and in doing so, implies she needs to do more reading. That's enough for now. Having subtly pushed her, the manager makes his next question one that won't make her feel pressured or defensive:

Manager: So is there anything you'd find helpful to chat about? Anything I can do to make your life easier?

To maximize the chance Mary will jump on something, the manager asks two open-ended questions: one very broad, the other probing for an area she's finding difficult.

Mary: Easier would be good.

Manager: Something specific or just a general feeling of being overwhelmed?

The manager words the above question as to not make Mary feel denigrated. For example he didn't say, "Are you feeling overwhelmed?" or, "What's the problem?"

Mary: There's a lot to do.

Manager: I can understand.

Even if the manager can't quite understand, it's worth being empathetic unless he decides to abandon the mentoring role in favor of bring-the-hammer-down supervision.

Manager: Want to see if there's at least a little fix possible?

The mentor wants the mentee's assent before launching in. And the use of "at least a little fix" reassures Mary, the supervisee, that the manager won't demand a personality transplant.

Mary: Sure.

Manager: So do you want to eat the salami a bite at a time, I mean take one task that's eating you up? Or look at the overall situation?

Giving choices is a way to give the person a say in the matter. It's also helpful when dealing with someone who doesn't easily generate ideas.

Mary: It isn't really any one thing.

Manager: Is there something new you want to try, or would you like a suggestion?

Mentors should try to get ideas to come from the mentee. They're more likely to be implemented and to preserve the person's self-esteem. But sometimes, people do need outside input.

Mary: I'm open.

Manager: Well, some people find it helpful to think continually, "Do I really need to do this? And if so, is there a less time-consuming way to do it?"

Mary: I'll think about trying that. But a lot of times, I just don't know whether there is a more efficient way?

Manager: In cases like that, might it be worth asking someone you know is efficient how he or she would do it? Or even have that person watch you do the task?

Advice may engender less defensiveness when dispensed as a question.

Mary: I don't know. I'll think about it. Thanks for the ideas.

It's possible she'll blow off every suggestion or possibly try them, but it's clear she's had enough for now.

Manager: By the way, I liked that comment you made at the meeting about the new product.

Where possible, end on a positive note.

Mary: Thank you.

The manager smiles and walks on.

That exchange took just a few minutes yet left the mentee with plenty to think about without making her feel unduly defensive. Mary may well be open to future mentoring sessions.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News. His sixth and seventh books were published in 2012: How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com. He posts here every Monday.

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