How can I become a great mentor?

by Sam on June 8, 2010

One-Minute Answer:  Many emerging managers covet mentoring as a rite of passage. They see it as a route to greater visibility, more challenging assignments, and ultimately to promotions. Their mentors benefit as well through the self-satisfaction of watching their protégés rise to stardom.


Mentoring occurs when managers partner over an extended period with more junior colleagues to help them (1) realistically judge their capabilities, (2) take full advantage of their unique strengths, (3) set practical yet ambitious career goals, (4) grow from every available learning opportunity, and (5) anticipate and plan for the future.


Mentoring is distinguished from coaching—a process of teaching someone to perform their job responsibilities more efficiently and effectively. Guidance from a mentor may touch on performance issues and will certainly enhance performance indirectly, but job coaching is left to the manager’s direct supervisor.


Summer Schedule

We’ll appear every other week during the vacation season. You won’t see us next week. The last week we’ll miss is August 25. Enjoy your summer!


Continue reading for the answers to these questions.

A.   What are the qualities I most need in order to mentor well?

B.   What do the best mentoring relationships look like?



Five-Minute Answer:

The Best Mentors…


1.    Want to mentor:  They seek out protégés for the reason that they want to serve and because they get great joy from being a part of another person’s growth.

2.    Are empathic:  They remember what it was like to struggle at the bottom of the ladder. They are compassionate and understand the ignorance, immaturity, and impatience that emerging managers may have. Their advice is not harsh, demanding, or threatening.

3.    Hold others accountable:  Even though they understand the failings attributable to the exuberance of youth, they both encourage protégés to act in more mature ways and hold them answerable for more responsible behavior.

4.    Pose more questions than statements:  People grow more from learning they have been led to discover than from lessons handed to them. The process of struggling for the answers to challenging questions or to choose between alternatives offered breeds strength, as opposed to the weakening effect of depending on someone else’s knowledge.

5.    Are good listeners:  Everyone needs someone who’ll let them get it out. They resent being interrupted before they finish with statements like, “I’ve heard that one before” “I know where you’re going with this” or “You told me that before.”

6.    Have the time for it: Mentoring may not be a good choice if you are preoccupied with your own career, excessively busy from a heavy workload, or insecure about your standing in the organization.

7.    Possess helpful expertise:  To what degree can you mentor on (1) what it takes to get ahead in your organization, (2) work/life balance and integration, (3) industry knowledge and experience, (4) trends in the profession, (5) applications of technology to operations and the work process, (6) customer challenges, needs, and trends, (7) the impact of competition, and (8) the strategic direction and future outlook of the organization?

8.    Are prepared for rejection.  The time is almost certain to come when one of your protégés will want take on an additional mentor or drop you altogether. This is a good thing. It enables protégés to gain a fresh perspective and frees you to do the same for others.

The Best Mentoring Relationships…


1.    Occur naturally:  Most organizations realize that it doesn’t work well to establish formal mentoring programs where mentor names are essentially drawn out of a hat to be assigned managers to mentor. It’s better when the relationship is formed by mutual agreement.

2.    Share common values:  Research has shown that the more the two parties have values, beliefs, and personalities in common the more trust, rapport, and natural affinity will grow. As a result each person will put more into the success of the relationship.

3.    Result when both parties are trained:  Organize a workshop where pairs of mentors and protégés come together to learn the best practices of mentoring relationships. For example, how often to meet and where, how to develop trust, what the protégé is looking for, what the mentor has to offer, how to head off the common challenges likely to occur, and what’s appropriate for them to discuss.

4.    Are where confidences are kept:  Both parties need to understand the absolute necessity of confidentiality and mutually agree as to what matters fall under the “cone of silence.”

5.    Are typically outside of the protégé’s chain of command:  When the mentor is the direct supervisor, either party may be tempted to manipulate the relationship for some advantage other than the valid mutual goals set at the outset of the relationship. This situation may also make it difficult for the protégé to be completely honest about career aspirations and other matters that one might not freely discuss with a boss.

6.    Exist when protégés are in for the right reasons:  Most junior managers see mentoring as an opportunity to strengthen themselves for the long career haul ahead. That’s good for mentoring. Some see mentoring as an opportunity to leverage their new-found relationship with a senior manager to swing greater political muscle in the organization. That’s not good for mentoring.

7.    Last only as long as they remain relevant:  Mentoring eventually ends. Either party may lose interest or feel that there’s little more to gain from the connection. Talking about this in advance reduces misunderstanding or hurt feelings when the time comes. One way to anticipate the inevitable is to put a “term limit” on mentoring relationships, projecting them to end after one year unless both parties specifically request an extension for another year.


Enough Said:  “Advice is like snow. The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”  ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Week after Next:  Do you sometimes wish you had the perfect remark to make at just the right moment? During the summer months you’ll get help with that as we feature our favorite quotations on vital leadership topics. On June 23rd look for, “What are some clever sayings about teamwork?”

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