Ask Annie

Do you have time to be a mentor?

January 31, 2013: 12:07 PM ET

Some managers who have squeezed mentoring into their already-packed schedules say they get as much out of it as mentees do.Business assistance --- Image by © Laughing Stock/Corbis

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I am a team leader at a company that has started encouraging everyone at my level to mentor at least one or two people below us. The point is to identify those with the potential to move up and guide them toward getting the right skills and experience. We can choose our own mentees, rather than having them assigned to us, but we do have to report periodically on how it's going. In fact, "talent development" is now a big chunk of what determines our bonuses.

All well and good, but I'm so busy already that I really worry about whether I have the time to do this on top of everything else. It might help if there were some specific benchmarks for what mentors are supposed to do, exactly, but that's being left up to us, too. Can I be any good at this in, say, 30 minutes a week? Do you or your readers have any suggestions for me? — Overbooked

Dear O.: Your employer's mentoring push sounds unusually vague, but maybe that's a good thing. After all, if there are no benchmarks, you can't be accused of not sticking to them. On the other hand, the lack of specific expectations may be adding to your anxiety about whether you have time for this -- which, by the way, is far from unusual. Notes Beth N. Carvin, whose human resources consulting firm Nobscot designs formal mentoring programs for big companies, "It's very common for people's first reaction to be 'I don't have the time' when they're asked to be mentors."

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And no wonder. Bill Rosenthal, CEO of communications coaching company Communispond, says that the most effective mentors do all or most of the things on this checklist:

  • Keep mentees current on what's happening in the company and in its competitive environment;
  • Participate in mentees' performance reviews "or at least provide input";
  • Showcase the mentee's accomplishments to higher-ups;
  • Help promising mentees consider "all the available development opportunities in the company, like job rotation, work on cross-functional teams, stretch assignments, and so on";
  • Arrange for help to plug any skills gaps, including training from in-house or outside sources; and
  • Step in to mediate when there's a problem -- "when, for example, there's a conflict when a fast-tracked mentee is reporting to an executive who'd prefer a more experienced person in the job."

It's a lot to take on, but according to Rosenthal, much of it can be done in "small bits of time" that fit in around your current schedule. "You can be highly successful at this by having frequent and focused meetings, or even phone calls" with your mentee, he says. It takes practice, but the experience may make you a better all-around team leader. "Mentoring or coaching people is really just a more concentrated form of what good managers do anyway."

Something else that might make the task seem less daunting is that "for a mentoring relationship to work, it has to be reciprocal," Rosenthal observes. The person you're mentoring has to do at least half the work" of nurturing his or her own career.

Moreover, Nobscot's Carvin says that, in interviews with mentors at her client companies, many initially reluctant mentors express surprise at how much they end up getting from the deal. "Working with a mentee lets you see business issues through a different lens," Carvin says. "If you're mentoring someone in a different part of the company, it gives you another pair of eyes there, which can give you information that helps you succeed at your own job. A mentee's point of view can sometimes help you understand your own team's concerns, too."

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Another thought, particularly relevant since you're allowed to choose your own mentees: Carvin's firm two years ago launched a Mentor of the Year contest, wherein the nominees are selected by their proteges. The 2012 winner, Samantha Stovall, is a program manager in United Technologies' (UTX) aerospace systems division. Stovall says she learns as much from her mentees as they learn from her, but "the chemistry has to be right. It just isn't there in all mentorships. If it doesn't click, find someone it does click with."

Good luck!

Talkback: If you're a mentor, what do you get out of the experience? How much time do you find it takes? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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