Allison McWilliams: Mentoring as Advising

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWilliams is assistant vice president, mentoring and alumni personal & career development. She writes occasional articles for Inside WFU. This is her second for the spring semester.  In each, she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff from her professional experiences with students.

This spring I am exploring four distinct roles or strategies that mentors can put to use in their mentoring relationships, depending on the needs and the goals of their mentee: teaching, advising, providing wise counsel, and connecting. Great mentors always stay mentee-focused: keeping the mentee’s needs in front of them, and adjusting accordingly. And, great mentoring relationships are always about forward progress towards defined learning goals: mentoring happens in action.

Today’s post is all about how mentors can use the strategy of advising in their mentoring conversations and relationships. Mentoring isn’t advising. In fact, generally speaking mentors should try to stay out of the advice-giving role, since it shuts down conversation and can prevent learning from happening. A great characteristic of mentoring is that it is experienced-based, and it is perfectly acceptable to draw upon your experience in your conversation with your mentee. And, it’s important to remember how you gained all of that wisdom and knowledge from your experience. If you are always swooping in to save your mentee from potential mistakes, then you also potentially are robbing him or her of critical experience that he or she needs in order to learn and to grow.

But there are times that serving as an advisor is an appropriate role and strategy for a mentor. Great mentoring conversations, just like great advising, use a process of asking thoughtful, thought-provoking questions and providing objective feedback in order to deepen connections between experience and application of knowledge. Great mentors use those open-ended questions that start with who, what, where, when, why, and how to guide their mentees on a path of discovery, not to get to where the mentor thinks they should go, but to get to where the mentee determines that he or she wants to go.

But, it’s not like any answer will do. Just like an advisor would do, great mentors provide objective feedback to help their mentees make more informed decisions and to take appropriate next steps. Great mentors don’t want to fix their mentee’s problems for them. But at the same time, there is little value in letting one’s mentee step off of a cliff. The next time that your mentee is about to take a step forward that seems misguided, ask yourself: Is this a learning opportunity, or is it a time for advice-giving and redirection?

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