Tips to Mentor the Board Mentor
Only about 36 percent of association board members say they were mentored by an experienced board member when they began their tenure, according the Heidrick & Struggles study “Association and Nonprofit Boards: Maximizing Effective Service.” This could be a missed opportunity as mentoring is a great way to develop effective, engaged, and committed board members who can confidently contribute right away. But a mentee is only as good as his or her mentor. Lisa Fain, CEO at the Center for Mentoring Excellence, offers some tips on how to be a good mentor and also talks about reverse mentoring.

What Do They Need — and Want?

The foundation of a board mentor/mentee relationship is providing the new board member with basic information about the roles and responsibilities of the board, committees, and staff. The mentor should also offer background on the history of the association and the board, an overview of the board culture, insights about the personalities of the board members and other key players, and any other institutional knowledge. Also, the mentor should bring the mentee up to speed on any key issues and strategic goals the board is working on. What’s the status of each initiative? What are the challenges and opportunities for each? It may also be useful to provide an overview of larger industry trends. 

In addition, mentors should ask: What do you want to learn? What do you want to get out of this experience? “A good mentor will find out what the developmental goals of the mentee are and try to help achieve them. It’s not just about what they are exercising in the boardroom. Being on the board should be an advantage more holistically for the board members,” Fain says.

Also, keep in mind, the skills and strengths of the new board member can be leveraged as someone might have a particular skill that’s needed on the board. “Learning where that strength is and how they want to contribute is a win for the board, for the association, for the new board members, and for the mentor.”

How Often is Often Enough?

The start of the mentor/mentee relationship should coincide with new board member orientation. The mentor should be available and accessible during that initial meeting to answer questions and provide support. After that, it is up to the mentor and the mentee to establish the parameters that best work for them. “It has to be an agreed upon schedule and it has to be consistent,” Fain says. Connecting just two or three times a year is not enough to build the relationship and meet the goals of the mentee and the objectives of the association. Fain recommends meeting at least monthly, but more than that at the beginning. “Meeting a couple times a month over the first three months usually makes sense.”

How and when is up to the mentor and mentee based on their schedules and preferences. Is it best to meet before a board meeting to go over the agenda? Is it best to meet after each board meeting to go over what happened? Face-to-face interactions are always favored, even if it’s virtual face-to-face via Skype or some other video network, Fain says. They might meet for coffee once a month if they are in the same region or connect at the association meeting or industry conferences. But when face-to-face is not possible, emails and phone calls certainly work as well. Also, the mentor should try to be available for one-off questions from the new board member at any time.

As for how long to sustain the monthly interactions, Fain says a year is typically a good duration for a mentoring relationship with a new board member. However, that obviously depends on the association and the individuals involved.

What is Reverse Mentoring?

Fain is not a fan of the term “reverse mentoring,” but she likes the concept. “For me, the term implies that we should be surprised when the mentee has something to teach the mentor.” She prefers the term mutual mentoring or co-mentoring. Whatever it’s called, reverse mentoring is when a more senior board member is mentored by someone less senior on topics or skills that the veteran is less aware of, like technology or social media. “I think there can be a lot of benefit there, because a new board member may be able to bring additional insight and perspective to a more tenured member.”

If the board opts to establish a reverse-mentoring aspect to mentor relationship, the goals and expectations for each party should be spelled out in advance. Also, mentors aren’t just for new members. They could also be used to mentor future leaders who aspire to ascend to leadership positions on the board. “You don’t want to squander the talent and resources of people who would otherwise be contributing to the organization.”
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