Mentoring: 6 Ways to Help Your Mentee Think Strategically

mentorBy Robin Madell

If you’re a mentor, you have a lot of responsibility. Your mentee relies on you for valuable guidance, input, and advice on successful career navigation. But of all the lessons you might choose to impart or doors you might open for your protégé, how do you ensure that you are giving the right advice?

One of the primary goals of mentorship is for mentors to assist others in career advancement, preparing often more junior employees for that next promotion or opportunity. Yet research shows that a mentoring relationship doesn’t always result in promotions for women, especially compared to men. A report from Catalyst found that while having a mentor did help decrease the career advancement gender gap, it didn’t eliminate it. The study showed that men were promoted more often than women even when taking into account factors like prior work experience, starting level, and amount of time in their current role, as well as industry and region.

Strategic Thinking Linked to Effective Leadership
By examining this research, it’s clear that one area where mentors can focus their efforts is in helping mentees think more strategically. Strategic thinking can help people at all levels improve their chances for advancement by working smarter and not harder. What’s more, according to Robert Kabacoff in Harvard Business Review, strategic thinkers have been shown in many studies to rank among the most effective leaders within organizations.

For example, a 2013 global study by Management Research Group (MRG) of 60,000 managers in more than 140 countries and 26 industries discovered that taking a strategic approach to leadership was around 10 times more important to how effective a leader was perceived to be. Strategic thinking was found to be twice as important as communication and nearly 50 times more important than tactical, hands-on leadership behaviors.

This speaks volumes about the importance of mentors teaching mentees how to master taking a long-range approach to decision-making and problem-solving. Kabacoff notes that being mentored by someone with the “ability to keep people focused on strategic objectives and the impact of their actions” is a very effective way for mentees to develop their own strategic skills. He also suggests that strategic thinking is “as much of a mindset as a set of techniques.”

How can you as a mentor encourage your mentee to excel at strategic thinking?

Here are a number of ways that both individuals and organizations can foster strategic thinking in others:

  • Encourage planning. Developing strategy takes time, which is why it’s often the first thing to go for a busy manager. Teach your mentee the importance of setting aside specific time on a regular basis to plan, both alone and with key colleagues.
  • Provide inside tips. Your mentee can’t think strategically without the right information to go on. If you have market and industry intel about customers, competitors, or new technologies that’s relevant to your mentee’s business, you can help elevate his or her thinking beyond today’s to-do list.
  • Share information cross-functionally. Strategic thinkers aren’t siloed; they’re cross-functional. Mentors can help their charges have a bigger picture than the one they see in their own department. Work on sharing information across boundaries.
  • Discuss organizational strategy. Sound strategy depends on each individual in a company understanding the corporate vision, mission, and goals. Highlight these points for your mentee, and review ways that she can incorporate this information into his or her own strategic plans.
  • Discourage crisis management. Help mentees anticipate opportunities and avoid problems rather than just put out fires. The goal is to teach mentees how to think proactively, not simply react after-the-fact.
  • Ask “why” and “when.” If the manager you’re mentoring gets into the habit of asking two simple questions before taking action—“Why?” and “When?”— she’ll be on her way to excelling as a strategic thinker. Help promote this future-focused perspective so that your mentee thinks through and understands the strategic goal behind every potential action.

While these actions may sound simple, they’re not easy either to teach or to learn. Your goal as a mentor should be to encourage a mindset of broad and objective analysis, planning, and thinking ahead as much as possible. Your efforts may make a significant difference in your mentee’s long-term success and advancement opportunities.