Three Qualities to Look for in a Mentor

In a recent Q&A I host weekly with Danny Bauer, we talked about the importance of having a coach, or mentor, to help you become a better leader.

Having a mentor is not a luxury reserved only for the best, but rather a requirement to become your best. Michael Jordan didn’t become a great player by sheer force of will (though that helped), but rather because he was coachable and sought feedback.

The same is true for principals. Great principals seek opportunities for coaching and growth. Here are the three major qualities I look for in a mentor:

Asks Questions

I recently worked with a leader through my weekly mastermind, who was putting out figurative school fires left and right. He asked for help in determining how to deal with all these problems. As we asked questions and clarified what he actually found important, he quickly realized that the issues were the result of a bigger problem: a vision for his school. He realized through answering questions that he didn’t paint a clear vision for his staff, so the issues arose because nobody knew that vision.

At the next meeting, he articulated his vision, and almost immediately the fires went out because he was able to tell his staff where they were going; they no longer needed to ask questions about small things because those fit into the bigger picture.

Has the Experience You Need

You want to find a mentor who has done things you want to do, or at least helped others. This one can be tricky because you have to think in smaller steps. If you want to become the next Charlotte Danielson, Todd Whitaker or Bob Marzano (or any other “educelebrity”), you don’t necessarily have to get one of them to coach you, though it would be nice.

You do want to find someone who has done something similar, or helped someone else do something similar. For example, Michael Jordan’s coaches weren’t the best basketball players before him, but they had experience helping other players succeed.

Additionally, you can find someone who is well-connected to others who has done what you are trying to accomplish. For example, I am currently at work on opening a first-of-its-kind K–12 magnet school. Though we are only in the research phase, having connections to different innovative principals has been very helpful in this initial stage. They have provided me valuable advice and resources as we plan this school.

Provides Honest Feedback

Early in my career, I was really struggling, and I asked my mentor “How do others perceive me?” He, thankfully, was very honest with me and helped me figure out what was lacking in my professionalism and how I needed to overcome that. I interviewed for a position later and asked for feedback from the superintendent. Again, he was brutally honest.

It may be challenging to ask for feedback and not know what you’re going to get, but it is worth the discomfort. Both these mentors helped me figure out what I was lacking and helped me grow and develop into a more effective leader. Having someone who cares more about your success than your ego can help you identify your weaknesses and become your best self.

Finding a mentor is not just important, but vital if you want to be more than just another school principal. What other things do you look for in a mentor?

Jethro Jones is a principal at Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks, AK. He is the host of Transformative Principal, where he has been seeking mentorship for five years. He was a 2017 Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @jethrojones.

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