How to Set Priorities in Mentoring Relationships

Laura Francis
Written by
Laura Francis

Too many distractions lead to unfocused efforts

In this always-on, always-connected world we live in today, it can be difficult to tune out the noise and distractions that bombard us and vie for our attention. It can also be hard, if not nearly impossible, to shut off our devices and truly step away from work.

Paw Patrol

I’ve noticed recently that my son has gotten very good at demanding my attention when I try to split my focus after I get off work. He has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal, and his physical limitations are severe. My typical post-work routine is to wake him up from his nap when I leave the office (I work from home), change his diaper, and then carry him to our family room where he sits on my lap and we proceed to watch the local weather report and then an episode of Paw Patrol together. I love these moments when I get to cuddle him and talk to him, but I am also guilty of checking my phone, looking at the latest headlines, texting my family, talking (okay, yelling) to my husband in the kitchen as he cooks dinner to catch up on his day (he’s a stay-at-home dad and primary caregiver to our son, which means he is on the go all day long), and any number of other things that distract me from the adventures of Ryder and his team of pups.

D as Ryder

What I find fascinating is that my son, who has a visual impairment that makes it hard for his brain to understand what his eyes are seeing, will catch me checking my phone instead of watching Paw Patrol, and he will swipe out his hand to hit mine. If he could talk, I know he’d be saying, “Mom, seriously! What are you doing? Pay attention to me. We’re supposed to be watching Paw Patrol and enjoying this together.” (Here he is dressed as Ryder for Halloween.)

I’ve made a concerted effort lately to not check my phone while I spend time with my son after work. From the time he wakes up from his nap to the time when we finally turn off his light at night to go to sleep, I have maybe four hours of awake time to spend with him. (That number decreases on those nights when I cook dinner—even though my husband is a far better cook.) Some of that time is spent feeding my son dinner and cleaning up the kitchen; some of it is spent giving him a bath; and some of it is spent on our bedtime routine of getting into pajamas, giving him his nighttime medicine, doing his breathing treatment with him, reading him a book, singing him songs, and then finally giving him his final cuddles before the lights go out. It’s not a lot of time to spend with him each day in the grand scheme of things, so I have resolved to focus on him and set him as my priority in those hours.

We all set priorities for ourselves and for different areas of our lives; for me, spending those evening hours focused on my son are what give me joy and what I want to be doing. He was born very prematurely and spent the first three months of his life in the NICU. My husband and I honestly didn’t know if he would live, so having him here is a blessing that I try not to take for granted. Life can sometimes get in the way of my best intentions and make it hard for me to stay focused on him, but I’m trying.

Priorities in Mentoring

Setting priorities to focus on those things that bring meaning to our lives is something I think we can all do. In fact, this is often why people start a mentoring relationship—because they have put it as a priority to learn a new skill, to advance their career, to give back to their organization, to share what they know, etc.

Setting priorities in your mentoring relationshipSetting priorities also needs to occur within our mentoring relationships; without setting priorities, you can easily overwhelm yourself and your mentoring partner with too many ideas on what you want to accomplish within your mentoring relationship. We’ve talked about setting goals in mentoring, but you also need to prioritize those goals. It’s great that you know what you want to accomplish with mentoring, but what if you only have six months with your partner to tackle those goals, or even 12 months? What would you focus on?

To help you prioritize your mentoring plans, here are four steps to follow that will hopefully get you moving toward accomplishing your goals.

Step 1: Identify your goals

Mentees: What do you want to accomplish through your mentoring relationship? Write down your goals…all of them. Put together your dream list of what you want to tackle during your relationship. You can brainstorm this list with your mentor and record your ideas in mentoring software to help track your musings.

Mentors: What can you help your mentee accomplish? As you and your mentee consider goals for this mentoring relationship, be clear about which ones you can help the mentee work on. You may not be the best person to help with a particular goal, and that is okay. The important thing is that you and your mentee make note of this fact.

Step 2: Weight your goals

Making a plan for mentoring goals and priorities

Mentees: Okay, you’ve made a list of all the things you’d love to accomplish with your mentor. Great! Now you need to add a dose of reality into the mix. You most likely can’t accomplish all of the goals on your list, so now it’s time to ask yourself which ones are the most important to you. To do this, weight your goals. You can do this by force-weighting each (i.e., give them a numeric value, such as numbering them 1 though 10 or 15 or however many goals are on the list), or you can give them a letter grade (with very important items receiving an A or B, while less important items get a C, D, or F). You could even create a scoring system and assign each goal with points based on factors such as if the goal will impact your career, if the mentor can help you address it, etc.

Mentors: To help your mentee weight the goals on their list and determine which are the most important to them, provide feedback on which goals you think can be accomplished within the timeframe of your relationship. You likely have experience with some of the items on the list and can provide insight on what is realistically feasible within the time constraints of your relationship. Use this as an opportunity to share what you’ve experienced, while also listening to your mentee to truly hear what they are saying about what is important to them. It is a great chance to practice being present with your mentee.

Step 3: Refine your list

Mentees: After weighting your list of goals, you next need to reevaluate the entire list and reorder the list if needed. You should take into consideration your mentor’s feedback and your own opinion of how important each goal is. Adjust your list as needed so that you are left with a revised list of goals that starts with your most important and flows down to the least important. From there, you should come to an agreement with your mentor on which of the goals you will focus on during your relationship. And keep in mind, you can adjust this list throughout the relationship, so if you meet the goals you set out to accomplish, you can always add more if you are both open to it.

You got this encouragementMentors: Give your mentee support on whatever their final weighted list of goals is. Remember, this relationship should be focused on the mentee’s development. If they decide they want to tackle a goal that you don’t feel well-suited to help with, be upfront about your hesitation and consider recommending that they find someone who can help them with that specific goal. This may mean they need to find a new mentor for the relationship, or it could just mean that they need to find a new mentor or a coach for one specific area of their development (and that you can still be their mentor on the other areas). The critical thing here is that you have an open and honest discussion with your mentee about these issues.

Step 4: Take action

Mentees and Mentors: Now comes the easy part (wink, wink). Get to work on those goals!

Mentoring is not a static activity nor is it a once-and-done event. It is a lifelong pursuit of learning to help better ourselves and further our development. Focus on meeting your current mentoring goals, and then reevaluate to see what your next mentoring adventure could entail. And most importantly, never stop learning.

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