The Right Way to Be a Mentor

Every executive would love to have a great mentor looking out for them. But these days, they’re getting harder to find, as Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong explained in a recent Forbes interview. With professional demands increasing and many jobs requiring “24/7” access, leaders frequently opt out of becoming mentors, choosing instead to focus on their own careers. Demetriouse Russell, a Harvard Business School graduate who now works at his alma mater as the Director of Corporate Relations and Market Development for HBS’ Executive Education programs, is bucking the trend. Well known for his active mentorship (he was honored as a “Living Legend” by the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School earlier this year), Russell credits his early upbringing in tough neighborhoods, including Chicago’s Cabrini-Green development, with helping him appreciate the importance of role models. “There’s an intrinsic reward for me in helping others, because I was the beneficiary of mentors, teachers and coaches,” he says.

He recognizes mentorship – and the commitment it entails – isn’t for everyone. “There has to be a desire to utilize your platform or your life experience to help others advance,” he says. “It’s about having a burning desire from within – not your company saying, ‘You’re going to be part of this mentorship program, so have coffee with Demetriouse once a month.’” Here are his four tips for becoming a great mentor and improving others’ lives.

Find mentees with a sense of mission. Once you develop a reputation as a “connector,” you’re likely to be barraged with requests for help and advice. It’s difficult to turn people away – but Russell advises being selective. “You can’t help everyone,” he says. “This could be a full-time job.” His first criterion is passion. “I need to spend some time with them,” he says, “because what I’m really interested in getting at is, how passionate are they about what they’re trying to accomplish? I can help with skill development and connections, but I need to know you’re doing this for the right reasons.” If your goal is becoming a millionaire before age 30, Russell isn’t interested; he works with mentees who want to make a difference in the world.

Ensure your mentees are paying it forward. It takes time and energy to be a great mentor, says Russell, “so if I’m going to take someone under my wing, they have to show me they’re utilizing the support I’m giving them in a productive and constructive way.” That means being professional, following up, making progress on their goals, and – especially – being there for others. “They should also become part of the network committed to helping those who follow them,” says Russell, who loves turning mentees into mentors by connecting them with others who need their advice.

Don’t get burned out. It would be easy to spend so much time mentoring, you lose sight of your own family or career. That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make, says Russell: “If you’re saving the world and you’re not performing at your peak at work or at home, you’ve finally got to say no. I’m not going to trade off spending time with my kid on a given afternoon to go mentor someone else.” Instead, he advises mentors to set limits. “I have [mentees] work around my schedule,” he says, and that keeps him fresh and motivated to help.

Recognize the rewards. The costs of mentoring are obvious: it’s time you’re spending advancing someone else’s career, not your own. But Russell urges potential mentors to also recognize the benefits. First, there’s the feeling of helping others (he proudly cites three recent mentees who, respectively, won a prestigious nonprofit fellowship, were accepted into a top-ranked Executive MBA program, and landed a job at a prominent healthcare organization). But mentoring is also a way to “expand one’s sphere of influence,” he says. “I help someone today, and they become part of my network.” Russell says mentoring also helps him stay on top of new ideas and “fuels my creativity and innovation.”

Serving on nonprofit boards is a common (and prestigious) way to make a difference, and Russell has been there and done that. But he says mentoring, even though it’s not a resume-builder, has been even more satisfying: “What I like most about mentoring is it’s not just setting policies; you’re making a direct impact on someone’s life.”

Are you a mentor, or have you been guided by one? What’s your advice about how to become a great mentor?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on October 15, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.