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How to Be a Better Mentor

A good mentor can be invaluable. Mentors serve as sounding boards for new ideas, guides for future career moves, and emotional support during times of turmoil and indecision. But not every mentor is a good fit for every mentee, and mentors themselves can always improve their approach and outreach.

Find the Right Fit

“If the relationship is a good fit, mentees can gain a lot—guidance, insight, perspective, options, lessons learned, confidence, and sometimes even a lifelong friend,” says Jennifer Holcomb, CPP, PSP, vice president and security solution lead for Anser Advisory. “The pairing should support not only what the mentee is seeking immediately, but also their long-term career path.”

While the best kind of mentor is an available mentor, notes Miguel Merino, former head of security for SEAT, S.A., and a member of the ASIS Mentoring Program, “it’s important that a mentee’s values align with your own. Otherwise, this will cause friction between the two of us.”

This mismatch in values or expectations could undermine the value that a mentee receives from the relationship, and it can diminish the advice that the mentor provides.

“The mentorship relationship is so valuable because both people learn from the experience,” Merino says. “Mentees receive mainly encouragement, motivation, guidance, and professional advice for improvement of new skills, deeper industry knowledge, and a wealth of contacts the mentee needs.”

In addition, the mentor has the opportunity to glean unexpected knowledge from the relationship, provided they are willing to listen. “Someone who is not willing to learn can never lead or teach,” he notes. “Usually, a mentee is a person with less experience or skills in his or her professional activities than the mentor, but nonetheless—and quite often—mentees have knowledge and skills that mentors don’t.”

“The great thing about being a mentor is gaining friends and meeting interesting people,” says Alan Greggo, CPP, regional operations manager for Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations and a member of the ASIS Professional Development Steering Committee. “As a mentor, I have learned patience and empathy for what other professionals faced within their professional lives. Sometimes that spills over into their personal lives; it’s inevitable that personal topics will come up in a relationship like this. Mentors must be keenly aware that it is not always evident what their mentee has going on in their lives. Be patient and be a good listener when you don’t have the answer.”

Tailor Your Guidance

Common objectives among ASIS Mentoring Program participants include professional development (70 percent), pursuing certification (60 percent), networking (60 percent), career path development (50 percent), management and leadership (40 percent), and career transitioning (10 percent), Greggo says. Those varying priorities make a one-size-fits-all mentoring approach impractical and less valuable.

Greggo suggests applying situational leadership principles to mentorship, leveraging awareness of the mentee’s abilities and strengths to determine if the mentor needs to apply a hands-on, micromanaging approach or more of a consulting or informal role. This can be tailored based on the mentee’s personality as well as their current or perspective roles.

“When mentoring people at different levels of their career, it’s important to understand what skills they have already and what they are seeking to learn,” Holcomb says. “Then you base your approach given their starting point. For example, if a mentee has successfully managed a project, you could tailor your mentorship to guide them on how to run a program. But if the mentee is still learning how to manage their day-to-day, I would guide them on managing tasks and time.

“It is important to note the difference in how each mentee learns and understands feedback,” she continues. “I can improve my impact on a mentee and their ultimate success if I adapt my approach to connect with the mentee and build on their experience.”

Mentors must be keenly aware that it is not always evident what their mentee has going on in their lives.

For instance, she says, managers are often challenged with determining how to motivate individual employees and how to incorporate those strategies into a cohesive and authentic management style. Mentees across the board often struggle with technical writing skills, Holcomb notes. In response, she provides context, feedback, guidance, and continued opportunities to write and improve.

“To me, the mentoring approach to a frontline employee is much different than it is to a long-term security professional,” Greggo says. “But to understand what part of the situational leadership spectrum is needed, every mentoring engagement needs to start with a meeting to determine the goals and objectives the mentee wants to achieve from that engagement. Use the mentee’s resume to understand their experience and engagement level. This is a good tool to use to form questions for those first few meetings. If the two participants don’t take time for understanding and agreement on [those objectives], the engagement won’t be successful. It’s likely to be an unorganized, sporadic, and messy experience.”

Melissa Mack, CPP, agrees that setting clear priorities is essential for an effective mentorship. “I encourage employees to identify where they want to be in three, five, and 10 years,” says Mack, who is managing director at Pinkerton and a mentor within the ASIS Mentoring Program. “Conduct a personal skill sets, traits, and qualifications gap analysis and put strategies in place to close those gaps in order to reach their professional development goals. The most effective development approach is to identify and be able to articulate what your professional value proposition is.”

In addition, be wary of being too prescriptive in your mentorship. Successful mentors don’t push directives but offer perspectives instead, says Herbert Clay, CPP, director of corporate security at Sony Electronics. This suggestion-based approach can foster more creative thinking and develop the mentee’s reflexive and adaptive management style.

“Through that dialogue, through that sounding board, it really helped me develop the reflexive nature of being able to think through a problem based on the catalog of information I developed from my mentors and then with my own experience,” Clay says.

And after those thought-provoking conversations, don’t forget to follow up to see what conclusions the mentee reached, what the results were, and how to improve for next time, he adds.

Rethink Etiquette

After the COVID-19 pandemic began and organizations shifted broadly to remote or hybrid work, longstanding workplace norms and etiquette fell by the wayside. Many companies relaxed rules around work wardrobes, retiring neckties and embracing blue jeans and more casual wear. Work hours have remained flexible for many people, enabling them to get work done around family obligations. However, as many organizations push for more in-person work and office attendance, some of those workplace etiquette norms are making a resurgence… and they are meeting some resistance, both from new workers and longtime employees who wholeheartedly embraced the different ways of working.

“Setting the example of what’s appropriate is the best way to get that point across,” Greggo says. “Leaders don’t ask employees to complete tasks that they would not do themselves. In a like manner, leaders don’t lecture employees on appropriate behavior in the workplace without themselves being appropriate every day. If there is a problem, I work one-on-one with the individual in a respectful and empathetic manner to first understand where the employee is coming from, what’s causing the inappropriate behavior, and then explain what is expected. There has to be an agreement as to what appropriate looks like, and the discussion must lead to change.”

“As a general rule, an employee must be congratulated in public and reprimanded in private,” Merino says. “Take into consideration that our intention is to obtain an improvement or a change with a positive reaction from the employee about what’s appropriate in the workplace. We must treat the subject objectively and gather factual information in advance, before having an individual interview.”

Private interviews to correct behavior from an employee or a mentee should follow a four-step model, Merino says:

  1. Reinforce the employee’s/mentee’s strengths.
  2. Describe the facts with firm arguments.
  3. Describe the consequences or issues with the person’s action.
  4. Agree with the employee/mentee about his or her adherence to what’s appropriate in the workplace.

Also, especially because workplace norms keep shifting, mentors and managers should emphasize empathy when course-correcting on behavior.

“The pandemic crippled the opportunity for collaboration that advances the team as a whole,” Mack says. “It did, however, add an opportunity for workers to get to know each other personally in the sense that now we were looking into someone’s life—home, family, pets, etc.”

When a change is necessary, though, mentors and managers should adapt their approach toward more of a coaching perspective, she says. “It’s more about providing guidance for the employee to buy into improvement of their personal behavior because they personally internalize the what and why versus the mentorship approach sharing their own experiences which the employee may feel doesn’t apply or resonate.”

Reach Out First

“I learned at a very early stage in my career that if I wanted my employees to be successful and advance, it was important to have a strong and effective training program,” Greggo says. “Untrained employees lose interest quickly and lose motivation because of the stress of not knowing how to do the job. Dedicating a job-specific trainer for the employees was helpful, but a formal, documented training program with progress reports and testing was necessary.”

Untrained employees lose interest quickly and lose motivation because of the stress of not knowing how to do the job.

If managers take the first step to push employees toward mentorships (internal or external to the organization), education, or training, it demonstrates a level of personal investment in the employee’s potential.

“New and young employees starting out in their careers are not always thinking in terms of professional development,” Greggo notes. “Some organizations argue that employees are responsible for their own professional development and don’t really have a lot to offer for employees to pick from in terms of development. The employees’ manager should be working to introduce them to professional development options if their company has them.”

Merino agrees: “mentoring new hires so they have someone to talk to other than their manager or creating an individualized career growth plan, including soft skills, can be a good starting point. In my opinion, employees are very grateful that their manager maintains good communication lines with them; offers them effective support and mentoring; promotes their training and participates; encourages them to assume new responsibilities; and above all, that the manager is an example for them.”


Claire Meyer is managing editor for Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her directly at [email protected].