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‘Great Mentors Are Made, Not Born’

MA_Raytheon_WickhamBy Pam Wickham, Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications, Raytheon

Most leaders have at least one thing in common: someone who showed them the way—a mentor.

But it takes skill to be a good mentor. You need to know when to advise and when to sit back and listen. You need to show your mentees pathways without managing their careers for them. You need to know how your mentees are perceived by peers without becoming a busybody.

At Raytheon, we have a global mentoring program that trains people in these skills and matches them up with people wanting their counsel.

We also have nine employee resource groups for women, LGBT employees, young professionals, veterans, people with disabilities, Hispanic employees, black employees, Native American employees and Asian-Pacific Islanders. These groups offer support and a place to learn new skills. In fact, this year I had my corporate communications team train dozens of them in influential communications.

But we’re constantly trying to improve our mentoring pipeline. So recently I put out a call to women across Raytheon asking them for tips for becoming a master mentor. Here are a few I really liked:

Tip #1: Listen actively and ask the deep questions

Great mentors are great listeners. That means suspending judgment and listening for trends that go beyond the frustrations of the day. Ask questions that start with “how” or “what.”

Tage Smith of Raytheon’s IT department knows firsthand how powerful listening can be. Soon after she joined the company in 2006, a vice president approached her to be her mentor. They met twice a month for an hour to talk.

“It was an open book with him,” Smith says. “I could talk about anything that was on my mind.”

Listening is far more important than “fixing” things for people, Smith says. Unfortunately, it can also be a rare skill.

“One problem I’ve found with some mentors is that they try to solve your problems,” Smith says. “The best ones are good listeners who guide you through.”

Tip #2: Share your own experiences

You’ve been through struggles yourself. So be honest with your mentee about the things you’ve learned.

“A lot of the information [mentees] are seeking is how people got where they are, the struggles and challenges they went through,” says Lauren Crews, a systems analysis section manager.

Sharing that information “makes you more relatable,” Crews says. Mentees can adapt your experiences to their own situation, helping them to find their own solutions.

Tip #3: Don’t expect sunshine and daisies

Often we think of mentoring as helping high performers move ahead. But many times it’s the people who are struggling who need a mentor the most.

Kim Parker of our space and airborne systems business, recalls seeking out a mentor for one of her employees who was struggling in an accounting role.

The mentor helped the employee find a position in a field more focused on public relations. Without the mentor’s help, Parker said, the employee probably would have left the company— taking valuable skills and experience with her.

“This was a way of keeping a person who was a high-performing employee, but was not the right fit for the job,” Parker says. “It was a win-win for everybody.”

Tip #4: Help your mentees stretch

One of the most important things a mentor can do is help employees get out of their comfort zones. Sometimes that means helping someone to view an unpleasant task as a learning opportunity.

Mentors can also open someone’s eyes to the value of a “lateral move”—a job at the same pay level but with new responsibilities.

Kathy Bryant of Raytheon’s global business services had a mentor early in her career who encouraged her to try a new field. That experience has paid off multiple times as Bryant has moved from IT to training to communications roles.

Kathy says she’s proof that one good mentorship experience can last an entire career.

“If someone helps you take that first leap, then later on you can say, ‘Hey, I took a leap before and it worked, so I can do it again.’”

Tip #5: The benefits go both ways

There’s another big benefit to mentoring, these women say: it usually helps the mentor, too.

Those weekly or monthly chats are a great way to practice management methods like active listening and guided questions. And being known as a good counselor broadens your network.

“It’s a really good two-way street where you can polish certain areas of your skill set,” Parker says.

As you can see from these women’s tips, great mentors are made, not born. But they’re one of the most valuable resources an organization has. Become a master mentor and you’re on your way to the top of any company.

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