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Picture courtesy by martin.gillet2

One of the questions the SAP Mentors get to hear a lot is "So, how does one become a SAP Mentor?" or more bluntly - from those who do not know better - "Where can I get such a shirt?"

It's a very valid question IF the person asking is interested in getting to know the process behind the selection of new additions to the tribe, yet if the person is asking because (s)he wants to become a SAP Mentor then things become more delicate. Because frankly speaking, if you want to be a SAP Mentor just to be in, then you are surely up for a bad start and driven by the wrong motivation. Chances are high you won't ever make it.

In the past, I always answered such questions in a very polite way: encouraging the person to get active in the community first, to start working the forums and/or to organize local community events. I told them to watch what other SAP Mentors are doing and copy & adapt. And while doing all or some of the suggested things will certainly help, however there is no such thing as a secret sauce to it - and even if there would be, we would be well advised not to reveal it as otherwise people may be tempted to game the system.

So, with this article I would like to dig a bit deeper on the topic and share with you my personal understanding on what it takes to be a Mentor (and yes, I've omitted the SAP prefix on purpose!)

Interestingly, the answer is not far off, for me the essence of it can be found in the "Mentors' Mentor" column of the SAP Mentors Quarterly. It's by far the one recurring column I like the most as it clearly shows that most - if not all - of us have been introduced to the role of a Mentor(ette) by being a mentee first.

I believe that this is the key to the world of mentorship:

Mentorship is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. However, true mentoring is more than just answering occasional questions or providing ad hoc help. It is about an ongoing relationship of learning, dialog, and challenge.”

Wikipedia: Mentorship

Such a mentoring relationship can begin in many ways. It may start with the formal question "Would you be willing to be my mentor?", yet it may equally well just evolve in more subtle ways... over time.  Such a relationship may be as close and intimate as the bond between Danielson and Mr. Miyagi but it does not have to be. I tend to think that every mentorship starts in it’s own unique way as it's a very personal experience after all, yet there are recurring patterns for sure. Whatever the case, it certainly takes two to make it a rewarding learning experience for both: mentor an mentee.

So, what does it take to be a great mentor?

In one sentence, I believe the role of a mentor is quite similar to the one of a parent or an elderly friend and the first and foremost thing a mentor should provide to his protégé(e) is "roots to grow and wings to fly." That may sound a bit too cheesy for some; so let me share with you the dedication I wrote for my former manager - Hans Gerwing – whom I consider my first mentor in my professional life:

"Your style of management provided me with both the freedom necessary to go the extra mile (in order to strive for the maximum) as well as a solid master plan, guidance and safety net."

Let's break that up to make it a more clear.

I believe it is important that a mentor helps the mentee to step out of his/her comfort zone by providing both guidance and confidence in order to set the right atmosphere to learn new things - by doing them. The trust that the mentor is there (safe-) guiding one makes it (feel) less risky to explore new ways. Matter of fact - trust - is the key component of such a relationship: only because the mentee trusts in his mentor he is willing to truly listen, which brings us to the next important topic.

Another essential thing to do for a mentor is to provide constructive criticism, to show a mentee his blind spots and areas for improvement. It's never easy to accept critique, but this exactly is what we have close friends and trusted mentors for. As we know they tell us the truth, because they are acting in best interest of our longtime development we can accept it more easily! No, you surely do not need a mentor to tell you about where you're good at. (A little praise once in a while sure doesn’t hurt though!)

Last, but not least a mentor should be willing to openly share his/her knowledge and expertise with the mentee. That may sound trivial and obvious, but it sure is worth mentioning. Sadly, many people who could be great mentors are still stuck in the antique mindset that their knowledge/expertise is their most-treasured good, which they need to protect by all means as this is what comprises their value. Such thinking seems outdated in the 21st century, as given the pace of innovation cycles it's no longer as important what you've learned in the past, but that you are willing to accept the fact that only continuous learning will allow you to stay up with this ever-changing world. It's not what you learned, but that you learned how to keep learning.  Guess quoting paraphrasing Darwin was never more appropriate then it feels these days:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”

Talking about continuous learning brings us to the role of a mentee.

So, what does it take to be a good mentee?

Not surprisingly it's very much related to what I wrote above. A good mentee should be willing to step out of his/her comfort zone, willing to accept criticism and willing to truly listen to the lessons of his/her mentor. Plus he should appreciate the mentor and the precious time spent together and ... well, be eager to learn! That may sound trivial again, yet I think it’s that aspect that truly separates the regular student from the one(s) who will be chosen as mentee(s).

I recall a time, I had just been handed over a new project, when I sat down late at night and compiled a "recommended readings" list for the development team in order to prepare them for the road ahead. To my surprise I found out later, that only a few of them had taken the time to read (some) of it. The others "simply didn't find the time." And when there were challenging tasks to be done, again, only a handful stood up and took over. So, if you want to be mentored you better make sure the mentor sees that you're up for it, that you're ready to go the extra mile, that you're eager to learn - or it may never happen...

To paraphrase something I wrote in an older blog post about coaching: Ultimately, every mentor looks out for his apprentices, the ones, to teach all he's learned during his life-time in a nutshell – his/her successors.

Yes, great mentors are usually hard to find and their time is precious. Consequently, if you want to be mentored you have to "prove worthy" or why else would a mentor be interested in choosing you, investing in you?

Last words

Before we conclude, let me get back on something I feel very strongly about. I said a mentee should appreciate his mentor. What do I mean by that? Well, it's a privilege for sure to find someone willing to mentor you.  I've come to believe that the best thing one could do to show his appreciation is to spread the word, share the learnings and crediting the source! By doing so, you keep the wheel spinning... you amplify your mentors outreach and by teaching others you can double-check if you have truly understood what your mentor wanted to teach you, because only if you can explain it to others you truly get to know whether you truly understand it yourself. And that's the moment the line between being a mentee and being a mentor starts to blurry....

So, the next time someone approaches me asking how to become a (SAP) Mentor I know what I'll say: "Find yourself a mentor first!" Guess, that's the best advice I have!

PS: Fortunately, it is quite easy to learn from the SAP Mentors as they share their expertise actively and openly with everyone willing to listen: simply follow us on Twitter: @sapmentors

Note: This post has originally been published in the SAP Mentors Quarterly Q2/2012, a zine created by the SAP Mentors group for the community. I'd like to specifically thank and tammy.powlas3for all the hard work they put into this project and for all the dedication and passion with which they did lead the way and make it happen at all. Not to forget about michelle.crapo who kicked it off with the four of us, but then had to (rightly) concentrate on other things... glad to see you're back now!

It's been a rewarding adventure for sure!