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Opinion | Why your mentor should follow the omnipotent, near universal 80:20 rule

Building mutual trust is an essential component of effective mentoring

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Over the past several years I have played the role of a mentor to many people, both in the companies I worked at as well as for entrepreneurs from the startup world. In the process, my view on the role of a mentor has evolved.

The most important lesson I learnt was that one has to be a mentor and an intern at the same time—as a mentor, one teaches but also learns, and it’s vital to be open to that learning. You can never be a great mentor if you go into the relationship assuming you need to provide all the answers or that it is akin to a teacher-student relationship.

Every relationship is a two-way street. You give something and you take something. When you acknowledge that you are gaining something from the relationship, and your body language also communicates this, the effectiveness of what you give multiplies manifold.

This may seem like a no-brainer but it has to be said: To be truly effective, you need to have some degree of expertise in the domain in which the individual is seeking mentoring.

Then follow the omnipotent and near universal 80:20 rule. Spend 80% of the time listening and 20% of the time sharing insights or advice.

The art of listening

It is important to listen and ask open-ended questions. By doing this, you are helping the other person explore her own inner thoughts. Develop the art of asking the right kind of questions and having meaningful conversations. People don’t need answers most of the time. They just need you to help them find their own answers or sometimes structure their thoughts. The questions should be filtered for any unconscious biases you may carry from your own experiences or your assumptions about the other person.

Do, of course, share some relevant insights and specific advice if you think it would help. Don’t hesitate to say, “I don’t know" on a topic you do not understand well, and point the person to someone you feel may know something relevant. Helping make the right connections is an important role that a good mentor plays.

Building mutual trust is an essential component of effective mentoring. In the absence of trust and open sharing, the diagnosis of a situation will always be incomplete and often incorrect. Like in any relationship, trust is the lubricant. While trusting in the first interaction is not easy for most individuals, reciprocating trust is far easier. Therefore, spend time in the early stages to build mutual trust. Trust is built if you are non-judgmental and treat whatever the other person shares with you with the confidentiality it deserves. Trust is built if there is mutual respect.

Be encouraging and warm, but do not shy away from nudging the person to explore blind spots or gaps in self-awareness by asking some of the difficult questions. There may be some defensiveness when facing the difficult questions, but don’t force the issue unless absolutely necessary. In most situations, your questions are a sufficient trigger for the person to reflect on it in solitude. Provide feedback on the changes you are seeing as you progress. Encourage and applaud. Nothing is more satisfying than receiving positive and heartfelt feedback.

Mentoring works best if the person seeking mentoring approaches you and is reasonably clear why she is coming to you. It also works if someone who knows both of you well makes the connection. It usually doesn’t work when it is forced. Mentoring can be time-bound and for a specific objective. It could also be a lifelong relationship. Often in lifelong mentoring relationships, the roles change with time from one of mentor-mentee to that of an enduring friendship.

It is up to the individual you are mentoring to decide the frequency of meetings, the duration of mentoring and the form the mentoring needs to take. It could be intense in the beginning and may peter off as the person finds that the reasons she came to you for mentoring in the first place no longer exist. She may have outgrown you or just developed wings and flown off. Just sit back and enjoy the memory.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. He is the co-author of Saying No To Jugaad: The Making Of BigBasket.

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