Five tips for being a great mentor (and four traps to avoid)

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 really good 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. They provided a safe space for me to be vulnerable, ask questions and explore ideas without any fear. They freely gave their time, insight and experience to help me be successful.

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. One of the great things about being a mentor is that you often learn as much (or more) than the person whom you are providing direction, support, and feedback. (I hope this peaks your interest in being a mentor.)

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

  1. 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.
  2. Build a trusting, open relationship. Establish rapport (learn as much as you can about the mentee and be willing to openly share things about yourself). Share both successes and missteps that you’ve encountered along your journey.
  3. Share knowledge about the culture and politics of the organization. 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).
  4. Communicate candidly and openly. Do what you say you will do. Be responsive and take responsibility for your part of the relationship. Negotiate a commitment and agree to have regular contact at predefined intervals. Jointly clarify expectations (yours and those of the mentee).
  5. Know when and when not to give advice. Resist the temptation to solve the mentee’s problems. Strive to instill confidence in the mentee that may not yet be there. Ask powerful, open-ended questions to help the mentee explore and problem-solve. Actively listen without judgment. When advice is given, make it specific and actionable.

 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). You want to instill confidence in the mentee over time.
  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). While you can help showcase the mentee’s talents through introductions to key people, it is not the mentors job to manage the mentee’s career.

If you follow the five tips and avoid the major traps, you will be well on your way to creating a successful mentoring partnership.


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