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What Makes Yoda So Good? How to be an Effective Mentor

Ray Smilor, President, Beyster Institute for Entrepreneurial Employee Ownership

In the second film of the Star Wars saga, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker discovers that he needs help on his journey to become a Jedi Knight. He recognizes that he cannot achieve his true potential without some guidance and training. He needs someone to provide direction and practical knowledge so he can acquire the understanding and skill to use The Force, the energy in the universe, wisely and effectively.

Yoda, whom Luke meets on an isolated planet in the galaxy, initially appears to be an unlikely guide for such a momentous journey. Yet the elfish character puts up with Luke's initial insolence and arrogance, takes him under his pointed ears and manages to bring out the Knight that is within him. Yoda demonstrates, as the mentor to mentors, how to give support to a promising individual, how to offer challenges that permit one to learn and grow, and how to provide vision so that the "mentee" gains confidence and, eventually, independence.

A Guide on the Journey 

For most of us, mentors have had a profound impact on our personal and professional development. They have helped us deal with adversity, take advantage of opportunity, learn from mistakes, better understand our strengths and weaknesses and grow as leaders, managers and human beings. In a real sense, because of them, none of us has achieved success, or even happiness, entirely on our own. By providing guidance and wisdom, mentors have played a significant role in directing us along the journey of our lives.

The original Mentor appeared in Homer's Odyssey as the trusted friend of Odysseus, who asked him to look after his son, Telemakhos. Mentor then served as a guide to Telemakhos in his search for reunion with his father. Thereafter, time and again in literature, the mentor appeared at the outset of the journey as a helper, equipping one in some way for what is to come.

Today, because of a tight labor market and competition for competent people, entrepreneurs must not only recruit and retain talent, they must also develop it. They must become mentors. Leadership in growth companies now clearly requires that entrepreneurs demonstrate the desire and ability, as Yoda did, to serve as wise and knowing guides to others in their organizations.

What Mentors Do 

Effective mentors want to be mentors. They have a genuine desire to share their knowledge and experience and to give something of themselves back to another. As a result, they gain personal satisfaction from serving as a guide on another person's journey. They also demonstrate three critical capabilities.

First, effective mentors give support to the people they take under their wing. Here's what you can do for your mentees.

  • Commit time. Share your most limited resource. Agree to meet, not just when it's convenient for you but also when the mentee needs you.
  • Show empathy. Demonstrate a genuine interest in the mentee as an individual. Work to feel the mentee's concerns and to understand his or her hopes and aspirations.
  • Listen actively. Eliminate distractions to focus your full attention on the person you're mentoring. Ask questions to make sure you understand what he or she is saying, probe for insight on the mentee's situation and help the mentee clarify his or her own thinking.
  • Serve as advocate. Represent your mentee to others, argue on his or her behalf and defend his or her efforts.
  • Express positive expectations. Continually encourage your mentee. Remind the mentee of his or her abilities, potential and purpose. Help the mentee recognize his or her future prospects.
  • Build trust. Prove trustworthy, and thus build trust, by maintaining confidentiality, providing candid feedback and honoring commitments you make, like meeting times.

The result of giving support is that the mentee feels special. By demonstrating these capabilities, mentors make those they guidefeel uniquely seen, and this allows for an open and mutually trusting relationship to develop. Under Yoda's guidance, Luke counts on his mentor's wisdom, trusts his advice and comes to feel like a Jedi Knight.

Second, effective mentors offer challenges to create an environment of learning. To offer challenges:

  • Assign tasks. Extend your mentee's comfort zone by having him or her take on new roles and responsibilities. Create situations that require the demonstration of new thinking and the development of new skills.
  • Engage in discussion. Serve as a sounding board for the mentee. Question the mentee's assumptions so as to stretch his or her thinking, ask questions that invite reflection and continually ask what he or she is learning. Also, provide candid and constructive feedback that helps the mentee better assess his or her own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Debrief teachable moments. Look for those rare opportunities that provide powerful new insights, then help the mentee to fully assess and analyze those insights. Teachable moments may occur spontaneously, and the observant mentor makes the most of them when they happen.
  • Set high standards. Clearly communicate what you expect and the quality of results that you want. Hold a mentee to high standards of performance.

The result of offering challenges that create valuable learning opportunities is that the mentee begins to think afresh. More important, the mentee begins to grow and develop. Yoda sets out one challenge after another for Luke to help Luke manage himself better, hone his skills and more fully appreciate his responsibilities to use The Force for good.

Third, effective mentors provide vision that helps the mentee catch a glimpse of his or her own possible future. To provide vision:

  • Serve as a model. Your very position, role or status serves as a powerful example of what may be possible for others. The presence of the mentor thus gives proof that the journey can be made. The mentor as role model provides a realizable goal for the mentee.
  • Provide a mirror. Your own experience serves to illustrate what the mentee seeks to accomplish. Be worthy of imitation. Looking at you, the mentee should see something of himself or herself in the reflection.
  • Chart a course. Play a key role in helping the menteee look ahead and chart his or her own course in life. By helping people understand and appreciate their own unique gifts, you assist them in overcoming obstacles and taking advantage of opportunities.

The result of providing a vision is that a mentee gains confidence in his or her own abilities and eventually achieves independence, even from the mentor. Yoda helps Luke believe in his own abilities and set out as a more determined and self-assured individual, who can continue to learn and grow without his mentor as his side.

How to Fail as a Mentor

Real mentoring is difficult. It's more than advising, more than coaching, more than giving directions. It requires taking responsibility personally for the learning of another and making a commitment to that person's growth and development. Consequently, it's easy to fail as a mentor. Here are some certain ways to kill a mentoring relationship.

  • Don't allocate time. Let other priorities take precedence on your personal agenda and only give a mentee fleeting attention.
  • Lecture a lot. Instead of listening, talk continually. Instead of helping a mentee learn from a situation, be prescriptive so that a mentee does things your way.
  • Tell war stories. Emphasize all the important things you've done, all the battles you've won and all the results you've achieved. Don't let the mentee's experiences interfere with your own.
  • Criticize everything. Tear the mentee down at every opportunity and never be satisfied with anything he or she does. Withhold any praise or recognition.
  • Avoid mistakes. Don't let the mentee make any mistakes. Interfere with any efforts that might not succeed.
  • Breach confidentiality. Share your mentee's confidences with others, talk behind his or her back and don't keep promises.

Nobility of Character 

While mentoring may be difficult, it can also be extraordinarily rewarding, both for the mentor and for his or her organization. For the mentor, joy comes from watching another flourish and grow and genuinely sharing knowledge and experience. For the organization, renewal results when people extend their knowledge and skills, take on new responsibilities and perhaps eventually become mentors to others.

Dag Hammarskjold, the late, great secretary-general of the United Nations, was asked at the end of his career what he had learned about dealing with people. He said: "It takes more nobility of character to make a difference in the life of one person that to work to save the masses." This is also the message of mentors in literature: Mentor to Telemakhos, Yoda to Luke, Merlin to Arthur, Gandolf to Frodo, Charlotte to Wilbur. To be a mentor is to reveal the best of ourselves.

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