Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
A mentor is a valuable teacher for a company’s emerging talent, but in four decades of coaching sharp business-minded younger people, I’ve often been surprised at how much they have taught me. You really have to know your stuff when you teach someone. Mentoring has kept my skills sharp, and working so intensively with young team members has helped me keep up with new developments in my industry.
A solid mentoring program can be the backbone of any company if it is done right. It should be a give-and-take relationship that’s about knowledge, not status, with honest feedback that goes both ways. And as I’ve found, it has rewards for both mentor and protégé.
The rewards don’t always come from teaching job or career skills. My most memorable experience as a mentor began when I learned an employee was struggling with a drug and alcohol addiction. I worked with him and his wife to encourage admitting himself into a rehabilitation center for one year. It helped him get back on the right track, and he returned to work better than ever.
I’ve also been mentored by some incredibly talented people. Three in particular come to mind: my father, franchising legend Roy Titus; his long-term employee, Gary Rockwell; and my father-in-law, J.J. Prendamano, who was General Manager at United Franchise Group (UFG) for many years. They all taught me the value of hard work and were unique in their ability to get things done and keep moving forward in good times and bad; I’ve often drawn on their examples.
J.J. left his mark on UFG in many ways, including starting our mentor program over 25 years ago which continues to this day. Here are some lessons we’ve learned in that time.
Related: 4 Benefits of Finding a Mentor
1. Don’t let status define the mentorship
The mentor is usually more experienced than the protégé, but being higher up in the organization doesn’t automatically make someone an expert in everything. As General Manager, J.J. reported to me, but I welcomed him sharing his extensive knowledge. Everyone can be an expert in something, and protocol should never stop you from sharing it with another.
2. Approach a potential mentor tactfully, respectfully and clearly
Start by expressing your admiration for their work or achievements and sharing how their experience aligns with your aspirations. Then, communicate what you hope to gain from the mentorship, and assure them you can commit the necessary time and energy. Highlight how you can contribute to the objectives, even if it’s just by bringing a fresh perspective.
3. Look for promise and possibility in a protégé
Approach them and tell them your opinion of the opportunities you see. Share insights or experiences that could benefit them and gauge their interest in mentorship. Be mindful of their autonomy, and ensure the mentorship would be welcomed and beneficial from their perspective. People either have thin skin or thick skin, so when sharing constructive criticism, choose your words and tone wisely.
4. Set expectations and rules right from the start
What is each person looking for in this relationship? What career advancement is the protégé looking for, and can they expect to achieve it? Work out each person’s responsibilities to each other and the relationship, and establish clear rules. Don’t assume anything, especially regarding off-limit subjects or behaviors.
5. Have an agenda, but let the meeting go where it needs to go
At UFG, we believe in formal meetings with an agenda and always in a conference room or out for lunch, including when mentors and protégés get together. Know the purpose of your session, and you’ll get more done. Don’t be afraid to deviate; good ideas can pop up at the most unexpected times. Just be sure the unplanned business is relevant and doesn’t derail the planned business.
6. Ask a lot of questions
This is important for both mentor and protégé. The protégé should be filled with questions about the subjects you explore and should never be afraid to ask them. The mentor should ask questions that challenge the protégé’s assumptions and help them approach problems creatively. “Are you sure about that? How do you know? What if the situation changes?”
7. Be willing to share your mistakes
Mentors must be willing to share experiences, even if it makes them look bad (“Learn from my mistakes”), so humility is essential — so is trust. To ensure an open dialogue, agree that “What happens in our mentor meetings stays in our mentor meetings.”
Mentoring really can be the core or backbone of any company if it is done right. Having the more experienced employees pass on great nuggets they’ve learned over the years to the newbies (protégé) is more valuable than anything else you could do.
Not all mentorships work out, and that’s okay. If the mentorship isn’t fulfilling its intended purpose, it’s best to have an open and honest conversation about it. Thank your mentor for their time and guidance, but express that you feel the relationship might not best fit your current needs. This approach should also apply if you’re a mentor who feels the relationship doesn’t benefit your mentee. Maintaining professionalism and respect throughout this process is important, as you never know when your paths may cross again.
Mentoring has enabled me to exercise one of my greatest passions, helping people become successful. I hope I’ll be remembered as a positive force for good in helping others succeed by sharing my experiences and knowledge. Thanks to the rising stars I’ve worked with throughout my career, mentoring has also left its mark on me.