How to Be a Mentor in the Workplace and in Life

By Robert Half May 2, 2019 at 8:00am

By Dawn Fay

Being a mentor is part of who I am. I’ve made it a point to mentor a lot of people in my many years at Robert Half. But I didn’t start out knowing how to be a mentor. Most people don’t. I learned by modeling myself after those who took me under their wing. From an early age, I sought advice from the individuals I most respected, from my phenomenal father, a CPA, to my college professors. And as my career progressed, I found influential mentors in the workplace every step along the way.

I was first mentored professionally during a job at a law firm the summer after my freshman year of college. I ended up working at the firm part time through college, and after graduation, I was able to pass the torch to the next student worker. With a sense of pride and responsibility, I mentored her into the role.

Then, during my early career as a financial analyst, I realized it meant so much to me to have had a mentor help me as I was starting out. I decided then that I would pay it forward. By being a mentor, I could provide guidance and share my knowledge to help others succeed in the workplace. And that’s what I’ve continually tried to do.

Are you looking to be a mentor? In my opinion, it’s a win-win proposition. Here’s my advice on getting the ball rolling:

Insights about how to be a mentor

If you want to find out how to be a mentor in the workplace, a good first step is to ask whether your company has an employee mentorship program.

I’m proud to say I’ve been involved for almost 23 years in our company’s formal mentoring program. It supports the transfer of leadership knowledge by matching mentors with newly promoted employees. Robert Half also supports informal mentoring to enhance career development, and I’ve offered my help in many different forms over the years.

Mentoring relationships can be built outside of work, too. I recently had lunch with one of my nieces, and we talked about the next steps in her career. I like to think I give her a point of view she might not get elsewhere. I’ve found the same thing to be true when I’ve been involved with nonprofits, like Dress for Success and Upwardly Global.

Many people assume their supervisors should be their mentors, but the role of a mentor is to be a guide — not a boss. It’s to bring a different perspective rather than a set of answers.

How do you begin the process? If you sign up to participate in a formal workplace program, your company will likely strategically pair mentors and mentees, and provide established goals and measurable outcomes to aim for. These engagements typically last a set period of time. As mentioned, you can also mentor others informally.

Whether you are part of an official program or mentoring someone on your own time, consider these six suggestions to make the experience valuable and enjoyable for both parties:

1. Adopt a rookie mindset. I have this motto: Always be the rookie. When you’re new at something, you’re eager, open to learning, always practicing. You aren’t discouraged by mistakes. Mentors should have that attitude, too, and they will get just as much out of the relationship as the person they’re mentoring. It’s a growth opportunity for both sides.

2. Be open-minded about whom you mentor. One piece of advice I offer mentors is that if you have a choice, be open to coaching people with whom you may not have anything in common. I’ve mentored vastly different types of people, at all levels. Diversity helps give a person fresh perspectives.

3. Serve as a trusted adviser. When you are a mentor, you are so many different things. On any given day, you can be a teacher, a friend, a coach or a confidante. You play a lot of roles. But I think what it all boils down to is that being a mentor is the same as being a trusted adviser. People need to feel comfortable that they can go to you and be open with their thoughts, concerns and aspirations. And you should listen and be fully present.

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4. Don’t just be a cheerleader. You want to be uplifting, but it’s important for a mentor to be honest with the person they’re mentoring and to share the things they can do to improve. It’s not about telling people what they want to hear. If I’m mentoring someone who’s stuck in a rut, I can be a shoulder for them to lean on. But I also want to let them know they need to take action, so I’ll talk about the specific things they need to accomplish as next steps before we talk again.

5. Know how to be a mentor who motivates and inspires. Mentors should set a good example and also provide examples. When I get together with the people I mentor at work, for instance, I talk about real-life situations, with anecdotes about what I’ve been through or how I reached a goal or overcame a hurdle. I offer my insights and share my experiences. Depending on how well I know the person, I also remind them of their own history and what they’ve achieved.

6. Stay in contact. My husband tells me, “You’ve kept in touch with everyone you’ve ever known since you were 2.” That comment describes one of the foundations of my mentoring. Just as with any relationship, after you’ve invested time and energy in the process of mentoring, I believe you should take the lead in staying connected. It can be as simple as sending a quick email or LinkedIn message to check in or offer kudos.

The rewards of mentoring

As I’ve grown in my career to the point where I'm now based in New York City, where I oversee 40 offices with almost 800 people on my team, I’ve tried to establish a culture in which employees consistently help others, to give back and continue the chain of support. My message: You get as much as you give, and everybody can learn from everybody.

Whether you’re helping someone solve a problem, hit a goal, learn a skill, navigate a challenge or make a transition, you can make a difference in somebody’s life.

It means a lot to me when someone sends a note that says, “Thanks so much for that advice,” or, “Thank you for being there for me.” The true gift is seeing people advance in their careers and their lives, and knowing you’ve played a part in that growth.

Dawn Fay standing with her arms folded
Dawn Fay

Dawn Fay joined Robert Half in 1996 as a staffing manager. She is now a senior district president for Robert Half based in New York City.

Dawn is a diehard New York sports fan who also loves going to Bruce Springsteen concerts (85 of them so far). She plays golf, dotes on her 12 nieces and nephews, and considers herself a foodie, although it’s her husband who cooks and has his own food company.

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