So You Think You Can Dance? I Mean, Mentor? Yes, You Can. Here’s How.

Helen Keller in Martha Graham's dance studio with Martha and dancers.

One of my favorite experiences with my transition students was summertime dance instruction. Along with acquiring dance skills and physical strength, the teenagers (who were blind or visually impaired) learned confidence, poise, grace, and teamwork. When the students partnered in ballroom dancing, they practiced effective leading and following.

This has me thinking. A mentor, like the lead in a dance partnership, kindly directs the mentor relationship. The mentor recognizes the skill and comfort levels of the mentee; the mentor determines the next steps, based on the goals and interests of the mentee; the mentor remains flexible with the plan, altering the course when needed; and the mentor effectively communicates with the mentee.

Yes, an awful lot like a good dance-leader.

If you are preparing to mentor, and I hope you are, take the time to learn the skills and actions required of a good mentor-leader. A mentor must:

  • Remain humbly confident.
  • Recognize personal strengths and limitations. You should coach others in your areas of strength, and learn from others in your areas of limitations.
  • Establish a healthy mentorship. Read or listen to Six Guidelines for Establishing an Effective, Healthy Mentorship to learn about important mentor-mentee boundaries.
  • Build a connection and rapport with your mentee. Seek common interest and common ground; when meeting, give your mentee your undivided attention; and take the time to get to know one another.
  • Pay attention to the mentee’s questions, needs, desires, and comfort level. Begin by listening well and answering his questions.
  • Be mindful to have balanced, give-and-take discussions. Don’t just lecture, but ask questions.
  • Help your mentee identify his strengths and limitations. Heap on the encouragement, but focus on one or two limitations or weaknesses at a time.
  • Share your experiences. Your mentee can learn from your successes and missteps.
  • Think about advice you were given from mentors, or wish you were given, that helped you succeed. Share the counsel.
  • Give insight. If your mentee is new to your department, share insight into the company culture. If your mentee is new to your career field, share insight into progressing in the vocation or maintaining a good work-life balance while in the vocation.
  • Learn from your mentee. He will have areas of expertise; ask him for advice.
  • Be flexible. As a good dance-leader refrains from forcing a step or spin, don’t force a topic or session.

Just as in a harmonious dance partnership, a good mentorship will involve a leader who has genuine care and concern for the mentee; who has taken the time to build a connection; and who has gracefully led and encouraged the partner to achieve more than he thought possible.