17 tips for being a great mentor

Have you ever had a mentor? Someone who took you under his or her wing to show you the ropes? Someone who freely gave their time and shared their knowledge and experience to assist you in your own growth and development? I can think of a couple of mentors I have had over the course of my career. These individuals helped shape my view of leadership and created my belief that a leader’s job, in part, is to develop future generations of leaders.  

I regularly ask leaders whether they have had one or more mentors during their career. More often than not, the response is “yes.” In some cases, it was a relationship created as part of a formal organizational mentoring program. In other instances, it was a leader who saw it as his or her responsibility to help pave the way for others.

Mentoring is the act of helping someone else learn something that would have otherwise been learned less well, more slowly, or not at all. Growth is the primary outcome. Mentors are facilitators and catalysts in a process of discovery and insight; the mentor both teaches and learns. Mentors often report learning as much as the mentee whom they are providing with direction, support, and feedback.

Whether you are new to mentoring or just want to brush up on your skills, here are a few ideas to help you establish a successful partnership:

  1. Establish a trusting, open relationship. Establish rapport (learn as much as you can about the mentee and be willing to openly share things about yourself).
  2. Walk the talk. Remember that what you do will make a greater impression on your mentee than what you say. Make sure that your actions and behaviors are consistent.
  3. Know when and when not to give advice. Resist the temptation to solve the mentee’s problems.
  4. Foster the development of a mentee by challenging him or her to develop a plan for success.
  5. Share knowledge about the culture and politics of the organization.
  6. Champion the mentee by showcasing the mentee’s talents through introductions to key people and offering opportunities to carry out assignments and “be seen.”
  7. Serve as a resource (e.g., provide general information about the organization, serve as a sounding board, and offer insight about written and unwritten rules of the organization).
  8. Do what you say you will do. Be responsive and take responsibility for your part of the relationship.
  9. Communicate candidly and openly, ask for feedback, and acknowledge the mentee’s suggestions.
  10. Guide your mentee by offering suggestions and options. When advice is given, make it specific and actionable.
  11. Negotiate a commitment and agree to have regular contact at predefined intervals. Clarify expectations (those of the mentor and those of the mentee). Be accessible. Have an open-door or open-phone/email policy.
  12. Use effective coaching skills. Actively listen without judgment.
  13. Instill confidence in your mentee. Do not let the mentee become dependent on you.

Traps to avoid

When serving as a mentor, remember to avoid the following:

  1. “I will do it.” While it is good to be charitable with time, energy, and expertise, a mentor must avoid the trap of “doing” when the mentee needs to struggle and find his or her own way.
  2. “I know best.” Again, while the mentor has much to share and offer, she must avoid the trap that says she knows best and that her way is the right way (or the only way).
  3. “You need me.” Fostering strength and interdependence is the ultimate goal (versus dependence on the mentor).
  4. “I can help you get ahead.” The mentee’s career is in his or her own hands. It is not the job of the mentor to “make it happen” (or even to give that perception).



Responsibilities of the mentee

The role of the mentor is important. It is equally important for the mentee to understand his or her role and responsibilities. The following is a list of typical roles and responsibilities of a mentee.

  1. Be proactive. Initiate conversations as needed, schedule meetings, and ask questions.
  2. Participate. Take advantage of information and suggestions offered, contemplate career goals and objectives, and interact with the mentor to achieve desired goals.
  3. Listen. Consider suggestions and options with an open mind, respect the mentor’s confidence and trust, and be open to constructive criticism as well as positive feedback.
  4. Be responsible. Be considerate and respectful of the mentor’s time and express appreciation for assistance. When talking with others, respect confidentiality.
  5. Take responsibility for your plan of learning.
  6. Never ask for or insist on special favors.
  7. Be open and accepting of the mentoring process.
  8. Give back as much as you get (mentors often learn as much during the process as mentees).

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