By Gale Mote/Consulting

An extremely effective way to develop professional skills is to find a mentor who can coach and guide you in those areas where you want to grow and develop. Many organizations have formal mentoring systems in place, where employees with valuable experience volunteer to share their insights with others.

Assigning a mentor is often used for succession planning and with employee development plans. Many employees learn better from a mentor than traditional classroom training or from a book.

Mentors have a strong desire to pay it forward and help others. They demonstrate patience, humility, openness, vulnerability and exceptional listening skills. Mentees must have a keen sense of what they need and want most from the relationship. They must demonstrate a willingness to learn and be comfortable sharing their fears and  aspirations. Being prepared and respecting one another’s time helps to make the meetings efficient and effective.

A good rule of thumb is to spend the first meeting getting to know one another as people and establishing guidelines for the relationship. Typical guidelines include respecting confidentiality, being honest and candid, staying open to what you can learn from one another — not being defensive or making excuses and clarifying expectations — why are we both here and how do we both hope to benefit from the relationship?

Quality Media Resources, a video production firm, has identified four pillars of effective mentoring that apply whether the relationship is formal or informal. These are the fundamentals to ensure a positive return on investment for both parties.

The first principle is inquiry, the ability to ask appropriate open-ended and probing questions to gain insights into issues, experiences, mistakes and lessons learned. Mentees should always be prepared with thoughtful questions for their mentors. Good mentors, in return, actively listen and respond compassionately, sharing insights and experiences that may be helpful while encouraging self-discovery.

As a mentor, I would guide the discussion by helping my mentee identify her current state, where she would like to be, and helping to lay out a success plan. Examples of questions to identify the current state include, “How are you feeling right now about the situation?” or “What are the long-term implications if this situation doesn’t change?”

Once the mentee is aware of what is happening today, the mentor helps to identify the desired state. “What would a best case scenario look like?” “What is going to get in your  way? How will you overcome these obstacles?” Finally, the mentor and mentee need to define a success plan. “What will your first steps be?” and “How can I support you?”

Sharing is the second important practice in mentoring. Discussions may be around experiences, contacts, values, feelings or resources. This requires trust and a willingness to be vulnerable. Being truthful and candid about what is going on in the mentee’s life is essential.

The mentor may want to share personal experiences that may have been embarrassing or painful as part of exposing the mentee to what is important for him to learn.  Demonstrating empathy and understanding are essential to a real conversation.

Susan Scott, author of “Fierce Conversations,” says, “While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a business, a career, a marriage or a life, any single conversation can.” Building trust comes with getting to know one another as people, demonstrating mutual respect for the guidelines and expectations within the relationship and showing appreciation for one another.

Mentoring is all about encouraging one another and support. As the third core principle, a mentor helps to build confidence and inspire the mentee to take on new challenges and calculated risks.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to identify the mentee’s strengths and find ways to align these natural talents with activities where they can perform with  excellence. Be  creative in finding ways to offer support, including taking the mentee to lunch so they can meet an important contact, participate in reading or book clubs to analyze successes of people with similar talents and aspirations, arrange for a tour to a department or division where the mentee has both appetite and ability for the job positions, and setting up networking opportunities where the employee has an opportunity to shine. When mentors share their mistakes, they also encourage the mentee to not give up — no one is perfect and resilience pays great dividends.

The final pillar is the most important. Simply stated — care! If you don’t care about helping people, really don’t want to grow and improve and feel that people are more often roadblocks than road signs, then participating in a mentoring relationship is not right for you. Caring is about being there for each other. It’s being able to count on one another when it counts. While mentors and mentees often do not go through challenges together, they are “back-up” and provide a listening ear or helpful piece of advice. Caring is  demonstrated by taking the relationship seriously and knowing when to take each other lightly.

Mentors demonstrate caring by allocating time to the relationship, sharing contacts and showing empathy. The mentee demonstrates caring by disclosing information, listening with respect, keeping commitments made and working hard to develop the behaviors and attitudes necessary for success.

Making a positive difference in the lives of others gives real purpose and meaning to life. Demonstrating the four principles of effective mentoring builds positive relationships to help people grow and achieve more. As a bonus, remember you cannot light another person’s path without lighting your own.