A great mentor won’t actually do the work for you–but he or she will help you develop your own opportunities. Here’s how.

I have been blessed with some great mentors. They were smart, experienced, and always had my best interests at heart–but they weren’t gentle. Probably each person gets the style they need from their best mentors, and mine were tough because I needed it.

Here are a few things that my mentors have taught me about mentoring:

1. Listen Well

The best mentors ask lots of questions. They get information before making recommendations. I remember conversations with one of my great mentors during which he peppered me with questions for a long time. At the end of the interrogation, I asked him, “Well, what do you think I should do?” His answer was very telling: “You just figured out what you should do; you just haven’t committed to doing it.”

He was right: The questioning had clarified my thoughts, and he had led me through the choices to a course of action that was completely my own. Instead of an answer, he had given me a path.

2. Guide, Don’t Do

My mentors might have recommended I contact someone, read a book, visit an exhibit or change a course of action–but they did not make the call for me, buy the book for me, take me to an exhibit or dictate a change of course. All of that was on me.

From time to time I am asked by people to “be my mentor.” The first thing that I do is to give them an assignment. It is something simple: Write a page about what you want, how success will be measured and why you chose me rather than someone else. If they start to answer, I cut them off and simply say, “Write it down and email it to me a week from today before 5 p.m.”

The interesting thing: Very, very few ever complete the assignment. Why? They thought that “getting a mentor” was an easy way to have a senior person start working for them.

3. Focus on Action

That leads me to the most important thing my mentors taught me: Take action. Every time we talked about an issue or considered a plan, my mentors wanted to know the action that I was going to take–and how soon. Who has time to coach and develop people who will not do something that is in their own best interest?

I know that what success I have had has occurred, in large part, because of the support of my mentors; I am also privileged to be mentoring a number of other people now. It can be very rewarding, but it helps to have a clear understanding of the roles of both people in the mentor relationship.

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