Advice to Beginning Mentors

by Barry W. Sweeny, © 2003

Here is a collection of twelve powerful ideas developed by a group of experienced mentors and then refined by other mentors and the author over a considerable time. Let their sage advice and experience be a benefit to your mentors and proteges.


1. ALWAYS BE POSITIVE AND SUPPORTIVE– The ability of the protégé to grow is dependent on self esteem, which is not at- risk when ASKING for advice, but which IS decreased by unsolicited “advice.” Almost always, when mentoring does not work, it is because your desire to “suggest” meets your needs more than the protege’s. If you really question a practice used by the protégé, ask questions to reveal the thinking behind the decisions before you rush in with advice.


2. THE PROTEGE DETERMINES HOW MUCH HELP YOU CAN BE
– Your success as a mentor is dependent on the protege’s readiness and openness for learning. That means that successful mentoring depends on your sense of timing.

If you offer advice before the right time, it probably can’t be understood or used yet by the protégé. Remember, you’ll only be able to offer an idea once or twice before doing it again becomes uncomfortable. Instead, you have three viable options:

  • Wait until the need is felt by the protégé too, or…
  • Provide a model of better practice to help the protégé discover what they need to learn, or…
  • Provide data that is arranged to reveal the troublesome pattern you see as the mentor, then ask open-ended questions to try and get the protégé to see and interpret the pattern, it’s usefulness, the need for change, etc.


3. BE WILLING TO “BACK OFF”– You can make mistakes of timing or approach even when your ideas may be very good and the protege’s need for it very real. Be open about asking for feedback when that happens and learn from it. Don’t create an impression of “pushiness” because that won’t be seen as meeting a need in the protégé.


4. DON’T TAKE REJECTION OF IDEAS PERSONALLY – More often than not rejection relates to the protege’s readiness to learn, not you, and it provides a valuable clue about the protege’s development and professional maturity.


5. CONTINUALLY REINFORCE THE CONFIDENTIAL NATURE OF THE RELATIONSHIP – Remember that the “door to change is LOCKED on the INSIDE”. The protégé has to choose to take risks with you for the sake of growth.

Make a commitment to 100% confidentiality early on. Then share confidences with the protégé to demonstrate your willingness to be vulnerable for the sake of your learning and growth. These steps will draw the protégé into the vulnerable “area” you have created. Then, thank your protégé for confidences and personal sharing when they do take the risks of trying new things or sharing concerns with the mentor. These are signs of a deepening relationship and trust which a mentor must earn.


6. RECOGNIZE THE NEED FOR TIME OUTSIDE OF WORK
Plan some social times and allow for the protege’s other areas of life. Remember, all work and no play makes mentoring a dull experience. Don’t overdose on help. Build in mini celebrations and invent little rituals to mark milestones in the protege’s growth, such as finishing the first month on the job or a tough assignment like a presentation to others.


7. OFFER TO SUPPORT MANAGEMENT’S EFFORTS WITH THE PROTEGE,
but be careful not to assume responsibilities that belong to the evaluator. Also…


8. BE CAUTIOUS ABOUT DISCUSSING THE PROTEGE WITH OTHERS,
ESPECIALLY MANAGERS
– Even the perception that this has happened can “close doors”with proteges. Don’t even allow yourself to share even positives only. that sharing can kill mentoring because it is perceived as breaking a confidence, even though it does no harm.

Just let any inquiring manager know the discussion makes you uncomfortable and ask to conduct it with the protégé present instead as a 3-way, not a dialogue (2).


9. PLAN AHEAD SO YOU ARE AVAILABLE DURING BUSY TIMES
– Busy times for your protégé will come at just the time you are busiest too, so get that work done ahead of time so you can say “yes” and collaborate when the opportunity arises.


10. FOCUS ON THE PROTEGE’S NEEDS –  Pay attention to statements which reveal levels of concern.**  These provide you with clues as to the exact obstacle a protege is facing or need they have, and to what is appropriate as a mentoring response to overcome that obstacle or meet that need.


11. MOTIVATE PROTEGES TO THINK FOR THEMSELVES – When protégés ask questions for which there is only one right answer, go ahead and answer it. Likewise when the ask for ideas or help (the “door is open”). Also, when their behavior places themselves, their career, or others at-risk, don’t hesitate to give the advice you know they need to hear. However, when developing the protege’s critical thinking and decision making skills and judgment are the goal, use open-ended questions to promote higher level thinking by the protégé and to reveal to them the kinds of questions that experts asks them selves. Just ask them the questions that you would ask yourself if you had to make the decision. Doing that will help them internalize these critical questions and become more effective and reflective thinkers. When there are hidden, or underlying reasons for decisions, take the time to discuss these reasons.


12. PLAN WAYS TO SPEND TIME TOGETHER – Plan lunch “getaways”, formal or spontaneous social events with other staff, & joint work sessions. All of these allow for greater sharing and building of trust and your mentoring relationship.


* Levels of concern are a component of the Concerns – Based Adoption Model (CBAM).