How to Find and Hook a Mentor

For the past three years, I have volunteered as a reading mentor through a program called Everybody Wins. My mentee was a young girl I’ll call Luna. She’s now in middle school, but when we first connected, she was an English-as-a-second-language third grader, struggling to keep up with her classmates. Early on, she was shy and content to let me read from books I chose while she picked at her lunch from the school cafeteria. I couldn’t tell if she wanted to be there or not.

It was fun to entertain Luna with my reading, sometimes using character voices and over-emphasizing diction so that she heard the nuances of sounds. I would point out difficult words, proactively trying to help her with comprehension. But it was a passive exercise on her part. I worried that she really wanted to be sharing lunchtime with her friends. Nevertheless, we both kept showing up at the appointed time, getting to know each other and hoping for a breakthrough.

One day it happened. Luna pushed her lunch tray aside and asked if she could pick her own book and read to me. Of course! How could I forget this basic tenant of mentoring? She wanted to engage in our partnership and practice her skills with me as a guide. She wanted to drive this relationship because this was her journey – not mine.

After my epiphany, our lunch dates changed. Luna was all smiles and eager to practice every other week. She began leading our sessions, getting more and more assertive about posing questions and assuming the role of narrator. Each week we wrote down the new words she learned, and sometimes I’d quiz her to make sure they “stuck.” When summer break approached, Luna took pride in her accumulated vocabulary. She was an enthusiastic participant, which made my volunteer time feel worth it. I was hooked.

This past June, we completed our three years together, and I reflected on how far Luna and I had come. It was time for her to move to a new school with new challenges. And time for her to find a new mentor.

This experience reinforced four key elements we’ve developed in our professional mentoring program at Jackson Spalding (JS):

  • First, acknowledging that you want to grow and improve. Mentees must possess enough self awareness to realize that they have things to work on, as Luna did with her bi-lingual skills. At JS, everyone has a mentor, but we’ve seen that the level of engagement is often correlated to the level of progress. If you aren’t willing to put some muscle into your goals, you will not experience growth. So, the first step is embracing the concept of mentoring. If you work for a company that does not have a formal mentoring program, find a mentor inside or outside of the organization and get that person’s buy-in to coach you. Early in my career, I identified people I wanted to emulate and I sought them out for support and feedback.
  • The next step is showing up. If ever I had arrived to find an empty chair, I would not have stayed committed to my reading sessions at the elementary school. But Luna showed up, even when she wasn’t sure of herself. Both of us were committed to our appointments, and we trusted each other to make our sessions a priority.
  • Mentees should drive the relationship. It’s their life; their career. They should set the pace, sharing their goals with their mentor and advocating for their personal learning style. (We use DISC and StrengthsFinder at JS.) Through her actions, Luna showed me that she was an experiential learner – not an auditory learner. She needed to practice as well as listen.
  • Three years can be long enough. One year with Luna would not have been effective. But, three years allowed us to establish a relationship, set goals and assess her progress. It gave her confidence to push harder and me confidence to advocate for her with her teachers.

The same is true in a work setting. One year may not be enough time to help your mentee accomplish a big goal, but three years gives both parties time to see it through. And although it’s sometimes hard to shift the relationship to another leader, a three-year transition cycle keeps everyone energized for future growth. It also helps a company cross-pollinate connections and skills throughout the organization.

Are you ready to find your next mentor?  I encourage you to lure one in with an assertive mindset.

Want to learn more about how you can help a struggling reader? Studies show that early childhood literacy sets the stage for future success in life. Your gift of one hour per week as a reading buddy is a gift to the future of your community and can help jumpstart a meaningful mentor relationship.