Selectivity matters for another reason. You cannot mentor everyone. No matter how energized, idealistic, and gifted you are, everyone has limitations. This means that taking on too many mentees is a sure way to compromise your own health, the quality of your mentoring, and your own performance at work. Excellent mentors appreciate the costs of mentoring. It takes time, emotional energy, and professional resources. Unless they are careful, competent mentors can fall into a trap.
What happens when a mentor fails at the task of selectivity? In attempting to mentor too many people or mentees with whom they are poorly matched, mentors dilute the power of mentoring in the lives of mentees. They also diminish their own enjoyment of the mentoring experience, which ironically is considered one of the greatest benefits of being a mentor. Well intended but overextended mentors can pay a heavy price—sometimes to the point of becoming exhausted, detached, emotionally muted, or even cynical toward their mentees. Excellent mentors know when to say no. When they reach their threshold, they gracefully decline accepting new mentoring relationships, especially with poorly matched juniors. This protects their current cadre of mentees from lackluster mentoring, and it helps to ensure ample reserves of energy and focus for their mentoring efforts.
Look at the other side. What about the psychology of mentors who just can't say no? The obvious consequences are a failure to set limits, inadequate self care, and, ultimately, burnout. They are perpetually overextended, hurried, and needlessly pressured, as anyone would attest. But the causes are less apparent than the consequences. Failure to set limits may indicate poor assertiveness skills or fear of rejection. It might represent an unhealthy need for approval or an insatiable need to be valued and appreciated. Being pursued by potential mentees might feed a mentor's need for importance or status. And failure to set limits could reflect a mentor's misunderstanding of the actual professional requirements and emotional demands of good mentorship. Whatever the cause, under these conditions, mentorships are likely to be marginalized.
What guidelines should mentors follow in initiating developmental relationships with prospective mentees? Research indicates that mentors in most fields generally select mentees with obvious talent and career potential. Juniors who earn the label "fast tracker" based on their past achievements and the perception that they will be successful are usually appealing to mentors. These mentees favorably reflect the mentor's competence in developing talent, and they eventually may become valued colleagues to the mentor. Yet good mentorships can—and should—also be established with individuals who have not been labeled as "fast trackers." Communication skills, emotional stability, ambition, initiative, intelligence, and loyalty are important traits that can supersede a label. In addition, mentors can be well served by seeking mentees who share their interests. Last, excellent mentors are conscious about seeking cultural and gender diversity among those they mentor.
In business settings, mentorships that begin informally often are more effective than those that are brokered or "arranged." The mutual understanding, respect, and trust that naturally evolve in an informally developed mentorship increase the chances that both parties will find the experience satisfying. We should always remember that mentorships, first and foremost, are relationships. As in a marriage, the freedom to choose for both the mentor and mentee provides grounding for mutual commitment and satisfaction. It's crucial that mentors be thoughtful and intentional when selecting their mentees.
* Honestly consider the maximum number of mentees you can mentor while ensuring excellence in the mentor role.
* Identify the personal qualities, interests, and aspirations of mentees that make them a good "match" before committing to a mentorship.
* Commit to mentor only after some period of informal work and interaction with a prospective mentee.
* Remain vigilant to symptoms of mentor burnout.
* Honestly consider your motivation for mentoring.
* Whenever possible, select a diverse portfolio of mentees.