What you should look for in a mentor

Not just anyone can act as a mentor. The defining feature of a mentoring relationship is the existence of a more experienced and knowledgeable, perhaps wiser, party.

Some board members fulfill this role instinctively and these people can be a boon to those taking up a new or different boardroom role. If such a person does not emerge immediately, it is a good idea to start making some inquiries about people who might serve this purpose.

You can look for mentors on the board you are considering joining – but be aware that you can look beyond that particular board as well. People serving on other boards, or who have done so in the past, can also make good mentors as they will have a good idea of some of the general challenges you may face. If a suitable person cannot easily be identified in the local area, you could consider a telephone or electronic mentoring relationship.

There are some essential traits a mentor should possess:

  • Empathy – It is important that your mentor has some understanding of the challenges you may face during your board term. For that reason, your mentor should ideally be someone who has gone through a similar experience.

  • Appropriate skills and experience – You need to be able to trust in advice offered to you as you negotiate your new board role so you need to be sure your mentor knows what he or she is talking about. An equally inexperienced board member may be a good person to compare notes with, but will probably not be the best mentor.

  • Problem-solving skills – At times you may need to call upon your mentor for advice in resolving a particular problem so it is a good idea if s/he is able to think clearly and critically and help you sift through your options efficiently.

  • A good ear – Mentors should not be looked upon as a bodyguard or troubleshooter – their role is to act as a sounding board. Therefore, it is imperative that your mentor has excellent listening skills and the ability to guide you towards making your own decisions, rather than shooing you in one particular direction or another.

  • Discretion – You need to feel comfortable that your mentor will act with discretion and respect all confidences you may impart, and vice versa. Therefore a high degree of two-way trust is essential to a successful mentoring relationship.
  • Ability to suspend self-interest – Your mentor needs to have a strong commitment to your development, and may sometimes need to give up opportunities in order to offer you a chance to grow into and demonstrate yourself in your new role.

  • Sensitivity and responsiveness – Mentors need to be sensitive to their role, keeping in mind they should not be trying to mould you in their own image, but rather helping to enhance your own skills and aptitudes.
  • Generosity – A mentor who jealously guards their knowledge and contacts is going to be of little use to someone in need of guidance, support and occasional advice. Mentors need to be willing to share their resources to aid your development.

  • Willingness – A reluctant mentor will similarly be of little use. You need to ensure that a potential mentor has the time – and inclination – to commit to a constructive and ongoing relationship. A short-lived or half-hearted mentoring relationship can sometimes do more harm than good. It is a good idea to ensure both parties have an idea at the very start about what the expectations will be.

  • Patience – No one should be expected to know everything about a particular board or their board role immediately. Mentors should be prepared to support you through any setbacks. Both parties should also be aware that mutual trust and understanding may need time to develop.

  • Excellent communication skills – You need to make sure that you and your mentor can communicate freely and effectively. A person with a range of fantastic experience is not going to be an effective mentor if they are unable to articulate their experiences.