How to be a great mentor

I became a coach because of mentoring.

When I looked back across my civil service career, I realised the most rewarding part of my job as a senior manager was the informal mentoring of my staff.

And the job that was closest to that was to become a career coach.

Mentoring someone, and helping them progress, is a privilege.

But it needs to be handled within a clear framework for mentor and mentee to get the most value.

This article gives you seven steps to be a great mentor.

1. Choose your mentee wisely.

Mentees can come from a variety of sources: your team; your organisation; friends or family; your wider network.

But be careful: our natural tendency is to want to help people like us.

But actually, a mentee will get most value from a mentor that is different in some way.

Echo-chambers are not the best places to learn and grow.

You probably only have time to mentor one or two people, so make sure they are people to whom you feel you have something to contribute, and a different perspective to provide.

2. Mentor them in the way that’s right for them

For me, this is the golden rule of management: as much as you can, manage people in the way they best like to be managed. You will get far better results.

The same is true for mentoring: some people will benefit from a more challenging relationship; others will be looking for something more supportive.

Or some people might need detailed structure; others might prefer something more ad hoc.

Discover this during your initial conversation, and then use it to…

3. Agree expectations and goals from the start

What exactly are you and your mentee aiming to achieve with this relationship?

  • Do they need a sounding board for problems as they arise?

  • Or do they have a specific goal they need help working towards?

  • How long is this relationship going to last?

  • How often are you going to meet, and where?

  • Who is paying for the coffees?

  • Will there be homework to be done?

All of these details need working out from the beginning, so there is clarity about the purpose of the mentoring, and about the dynamics of the relationship.

4. Mentoring is not training

Yes, part of the purpose of mentoring is to share your hard-won wisdom.

BUT the best way to do this is not to lecture your mentee on exactly what to do in a given situation.

Instead, help them find their own way: it is the best way to learn.

“What shall I do?”; “What do YOU think you should do?”

As a rule of thumb, listen and ask questions more than you talk.

(And watch out for personal biases - we all have them, but they can skew our perspectives. Stay as objective as possible.)

5. Share personal stories

People are story-obsessed: it is a really effective way to share learning.

So use your stock of personal experiences to illustrate points or guide your mentee to conclusions.

And don’t just use the success stories - sharing about the times when things went badly is also very useful, not just for the learning after the event, but also to help them realise it’s OK to make mistakes!

And to let them know you are only human too.

6. Be trustworthy

Don’t share the content of your conversations with others without your mentee’s permission - they will become reluctant to confide in you.