How to keep your best and brightest recruits shining long after you've hired them

By Max Berry

As a small business owner employing a recent college graduate, you find yourself in one of the most potentially rewarding roles a businessperson can inhabit: that of the mentor. Without a stratum of mid-level managers between you, you'll have plenty of contact with the most junior members of your staff, and chances are they'll be looking to you for guidance. So be humble, but don't be intimidated; you may learn as much as you teach.

Lighting a fire
"Your job isn't just to get things done," says Jim Perrone, managing partner of Chicago mentorship coaching and consulting firm Perrone-Ambrose Associates, "but to get the best out of people." New employees are often too intimidated by their supervisors to ask what seem to them like inane questions. Let them know early on that there is no such thing, and that they needn't worry about being judged simply for not having their bearings yet.

Once you've established this, set up some formal guidelines for how the introductory phase of the job will work. "When a new person comes on, become a teacher first," advises Perrone, "then a trainer, then move away from that." In gradually scaling back your own role, you gradually allow your new employee more unsupervised responsibility. Even as you scale yourself back, work to build a dialogue with your new employee. "Get them thinking and asking good questions while they work," Perrone says. Questions are essential; volleying ideas is far more productive-both for mentor and mentee-than asking your employee a series of pre-determined questions and waiting for the "correct" answers.

Make sure you are asking as many questions of your employee as they are asking of you. Ask them about their thoughts on a given issue before you offer your own. No two employees are alike; they will approach their jobs from different angles and will likely have vastly different career goals. Find out what those are and guide them towards the goals they have envisioned, not the ones you have envisioned for them. The key word here is guide, which is not the same as direct. "If you look at mentoring as making someone in your image, that can become stifling," warns Perrone

Perrone identifies trial and error-especially error-as key components of the mentoring process. "People learn best through self-discovery," he says. And sometimes that means screwing up. When your employee makes a mistake, don't hold back on your comments and corrections, just deliver them tactfully and let your new employee try again. Remember: Describe the desired result of a task, but don't instruct your employee on how to reach it. As Perrone puts it, "Mentoring is more lighting a fire than filling a bucket."

Dual investment
Perrone is always careful to refer to a mentoring relationship as a partnership, as if to suggest that the teacher has as much to gain as the pupil. In fact, he is doing more than suggesting: "These relationships should be as satisfying for the mentor as for the person being mentored."

Part of that satisfaction comes from the very tangible effects a successful mentoring partnership can have on your business. "You get a lot of commitment when you invest in somebody," says Perrone. "And it's a big payoff. As they get more committed, you get stronger." As your employees begin to feel more valued, they'll begin to feel more motivated, which can only mean good things for productivity and employee retention.

But building a relationship with your employees through mentoring will not only keep them loyal and productive, it also will provide a built-in solution for the question of succession. A manager need not look outside the company to fill an important position when there is already somebody on staff who has been nurtured within the company, somebody who is already fluent in the ethos of your business.

Mentoring someone else is also an excellent way to facilitate your own professional growth. A manager's leadership skills will only improve and deepen after developing relationships with individuals from different social and economic backgrounds. And don't forget the propensity of a new employee to ask "Why?" Answer this simple question enough times, for enough people, and you'll eventually begin to ask it of yourself. You will eventually discover that it is not such a simple question after all. Then watch your answer evolve, along with your own image of yourself and your business.

A lasting impression
But perhaps the greatest satisfaction of being a mentor is the satisfaction of building a legacy, both for yourself and your company. Mentoring your small business's young talent will influence not only the employees you are working with but also the very future of the company you've built. And as each year provides a new crop of talent, each with more education and a more advanced skill set than the last-"They may have better ideas than you even have," Perrone points out-instilling some of your sensibilities in this new breed can only mean good things for the future of your business.

It may be foolish to believe, in this day and age, that the person you mentor today will still be with your company a generation from now, ready to pass along your preserved wisdom. But mentoring this way will nonetheless inspire a new generation to guide rather than direct, to collaborate rather than instruct. "It's an empowerment program," says Perrone. "Many people get great satisfaction from that sense of legacy-from just watching someone click, watching someone get it."