On being a mentor

A perennial question on any professional forum I think:

What qualities, behaviors, or other facet of being makes someone you view as a mentor figure a good mentor? I am interested in seeing what traits are the “classics” and if there are any new traits that have come to the fore as a result of changes in the overall economy.

Also, do you think mentors for technical matters and interpersonal matters are mutually exclusive or must both be in some balance within the mentor figure?

This question came up on Eng-Tips this spring. I’ll copy my post:

I was assigned a highly qualified mentor on day one of my first job. For the next four years, it was one of the most rewarding and educational experiences of my professional career.

Much later, in a different career field, I mentored six engineers, one at a time for periods of a few weeks to several years.

My recommendations?
For the mentor… older than you, but not from a different generation.

Ideally, the mentor has their own projects, you have yours. If you are both working on the same project, it should be different aspects. You don’t want the relationship to change where you become the mentor’s “assistant”.

The mentor is willing to stop what they are doing and devote undivided attention to your issues.

For the mentee… Don’t go to the mentor asking for “help” or “advice” before even beginning work on an issue. Instead, do what you can to get started… even if this turns out be be wrong. By taking your work to the mentor, the two of you now have something worthwhile to discuss.

On a regular basis, voluntarily discuss your progress on the project with the mentor, even if you have not consulted with them recently on a specific issue.

For you to get the most out of the relationship, your solution to issues will likely be iterative, not a direct path from “knowing nothing” to “correct answer”. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to fail; just start over, if that is what it takes.

Demonstrate that you have “moxie”.

Concerning mentors for technical and interpersonal matters, I consider them mutually exclusive. Just because a mentor is good in one of those area, does not mean they are good in the other.

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Mentoring is the process whereby older engineers determine whether or not the mentored, and the mentor, are willing to learn.

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