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December 04, 2018

The Essential Traits Needed to be a Mentor

7 mins read

Part 7 of the Series: Increase your stock by investing in your future

What makes a good mentor? This may seem like a simple question and yet, depending on who you ask, you’re likely to receive very different feedback. Most of us can think of multiple mentors who had an impact on our lives, each with their own strengths and quirks that made them good at molding us into something better. As a mentor of five part-time students, I’ve found that soft skills and certain personality traits tend to determine whether a mentor is successful. While knowledge and experience are certainly necessary for any mentor to be successful, it takes more than just delivering this information to a new member of your team. For this reason, I’d like to focus on the soft skills a mentor should work to embody: empathy, passion, communication skills, and patience. I hope that the following explanations help current and future mentors improve their approach to how they teach.


Establish trust and connection
Empathy is crucial for any mentor as it establishes trust and a connection with your mentee that will allow you to teach them more efficiently. We all remember our first job and how daunting it was to start our careers. No two people are the same, and by putting yourself in their shoes, you will better understand how you can help them grow as a professional. For example, if one of my students doesn’t feel very confident working in a new tech stack, I like to pair with them so they can see how things are supposed to work, thereby gaining some confidence in knowing I’m there to answer any questions. Or if one of my students seems tired or distracted I’ll ask them if they want someone to talk to. A lot of times it might be school work or personal issues, but giving someone the opportunity to vent to can sometimes make all the difference. By having the ability to empathize with your students you provide a fun and safe work environment that focuses on how each student learns.

Once you can empathize with your students you’ll have their trust, but how do you get them excited to learn?


The drive that helps us teach
Passion for what we do is crucial because it helps us teach mentees and to continue improving not only them but also ourselves. Passion is a mentor’s best tool to get their students excited to learn about technology and processes. Most individuals are hungry to learn; your mentees are no exception and they will feed off of your excitement and energy. If you come to work excited to show them something new, they’ll begin to feel excited to come to work so they can learn all these cool, new things. This, in turn, will create a cycle of growth not only for your mentee but for you as well. As you teach them more and more about your field, you will inevitably illicit difficult questions from them. Eventually, your mentee will pose a question that you can’t answer off the top of your head. This causes you to have to do some research on the subject and will grow your knowledge base as well as theirs, further supporting a healthy and symbiotic relationship for both the mentor and mentee.

At this point we’ve covered how using passion and empathy can help you establish a dialogue with your students. Now comes the part where we must communicate what we know to them.


Convey Thoughts Clearly
Good communication skills are a pillar of mentoring. Strong communication skills are useful in everyday life but are especially necessary when mentoring. These skills help to convey our thoughts clearly and teach our mentees how to appropriately communicate in the team and company. If you cannot clearly communicate your intent, you will leave both yourself and your mentee feeling frustrated. So how do we effectively communicate with our mentees? One important aspect of this is taking complex subjects and simplifying them so that a new team member can more easily understand the content. To do this we should assume we are starting from square one, explaining any terms we may take for granted, and avoiding any acronyms that could potentially add confusion. Not only do you need strong communication skills to help explain various topics, but these mentees will look to you as an example of how they should communicate with others on a professional level. This means you should not only teach them about clear verbal communication but written communication as well. Going over how to write a proper business email is a skill many do not learn for some time after joining the workforce. It can also be highly beneficial to go over different kinds of remote communication such as direct messaging services and various video chat apps. This will better prepare your mentee for any work they must do with coworkers that are not co-located.


Holding it all together
Lastly, we have patience as a trait that every mentor should possess. This may be last in the list, but it is by no means the least valuable. As a mentor, you’re going to have mentees who are at various skill levels and learn at different rates. Often, they aren’t going to understand a topic the first time and you’re going to have to explain it more than once and walk them through it. No matter what, you’ll need to keep your cool. If you lose your head and get mad if they don’t get it right away, it will likely result in your mentee shutting down and not wanting to work anymore. Or they may get defensive and no longer look to you for learning experiences, defeating the purpose of teaching. If you or your mentee start to get frustrated, it is okay to take a break. Better that you both get a breather in and calm your nerves than exploding and making things worse. Keep in mind that you are essentially a role model for how to act in the workplace, so stay professional.

This concludes my humble list of essential traits to mentors should possess. There are plenty of other characteristics that help make a good mentor, but these are just a few that, in my experience, have been invaluable. Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve discussed:

  • Empathy establishes trust and a connection with your mentee that will allow you to teach them more efficiently.
  • Passion is necessary because that is the drive that helps you teach and keep yourself learning as well.
  • Strong communication skills are useful in everyday life but are especially necessary for mentoring to convey your thoughts clearly and to teach your mentee how to appropriately communicate in your team and company.
  • Patience is the glue that holds all this together and helps us to properly mentor our new team members.

I hope you’ve found this article insightful and that it helps you unlock your inner Yoda.

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This blog post is part of our “Increase Your Stock by Investing in Your Future” series. Here, consultants at Excella’s Extension Center (XC) at Virginia Tech share their experiences developing an award-winning internship program, lessons learned, and tips you can apply when building your own program!

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