Mentor Support For Protege Observations

By Barry Sweeny, 2003


A fantastic way to learn is to observe an expert at work. That is because so much of the knowledge we need to learn is “tacit” knowledge, or “know how” that has been gained from experience. When we watch an expert at work, we can see a great deal of what they know how to do because so much of that tacit “know how” shows in the expert’s behaviors, which we can see.

However, some of the most critical “know how” we need to learn are NOT VISIBLE in behaviors.Examples of these non observables include:

  • An expert’s analysis of the problem
  • Consideration of options that address the problem
  • Selection of the best option
  • Selection of a “plan B” just in case
  • Deciding how the person will know if “plan A” is working or not, and..
  • When the expert will decide to switch methods if needed.

If the person to be observed is also a great “teacher”, then the observation can be followed by discussion with that expert of the process observed, and the reasons why certain choices were made, as well as other non observables which occurred. For the protege to learn what is most critical from an observation, the expert’s decision making and thinking needs to be “unpacked” and revealed so the protege can learn from it.

Follow Up, Follow Up and Follow Up + Successful implementationIf this cannot happen, or the expert is not a good “teacher”, then the MENTOR MUST also be at the observation with the protege and seeing what the protege sees. This way the mentor can do the “unpacking” and explaining that the expert cannot. The process of debriefing the observation is a crucial role for the mentor. It is the “bridge” function again.

Research at the following link, clearly shows that without a mentor or coach’s follow up support in the workplace, the majority of what the protege may have learned in any observation is not likely to be implemented in practice or as improved performance. It’s part of the mentor’s job to be sure the protege’s learning results in growth and improvement in his or her work.


DEFINE the mentor’s role to include discussion after protege observations about specific ways to implement what was learned in the observation in the protege’s work. This process should include:

  • Reviewing what the observation revealed and what the protege learned from the observation
  • Asking questions to ascertain the extent of the protege’s understanding of what was observed and possible need for further explanation by the mentor of what was observed, why it happened as it did, what the expert may have been thinking, etc.
  • Deciding, what observational learnings need to implemented right away & what learning will be more useful later.
  • Setting realistic longer-term goals and shorter-term objectives for implementing the learning in work.
  • Planning the specific steps to implement that learning in the protege’s work, including time lines, resources needed, etc.
  • Deciding how the mentor can support the protege’s plan to use the learning and skills gained from the observation in the protege’s work.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you are right. The above steps are essentially the same ones which mentors should follow in providing proteges with support to implement learning from ANY OTHER development program activities the organization provides.


Proteges may not feel supported by activities that are intended as support until after they have experienced it and discovered its value. An example of this is the requirement for proteges to observe experts, other than their mentor, say for a total of two days a year. I routinely have had proteges tell me that they can not imagine being away from their work to meet that requirement.

As a result, a number of problems often happen. The solutions to this dilemma are provided in the chart below.

Further, I would caution that, unless many of these best practices can be put in place, it may be best NOT to require protege observations at all. Without adequate support, their own lack of experience and understandings may not produce much value from the experience, and the time away from work can be a waste. With adequate support for selecting and debriefing what was observed, the observation can be one of the very best, if not one of the ONLY, ways to get a protege to realize that they have areas in which they need to improve and to begin deferring more to the experience of their mentor.

Why protege observations often fail: Best Practices for High Impact Protege Observations
A. The observation is put off to the end of the year when it does little good, because proteges do not want to leave their own work and they may not yet be comfortable observing others at work. • Require proteges to make a 1/2 day visitation each quarter.• Provide a panel presentation or quotations from second year proteges who say, “I was sorry I put it off. I got great ideas I could have used all this year.”

• Require proteges to first observe their mentors during the first month or so.

B. There is no support for helping proteges to identify what they need to learn or how they need to improve, so they donít know what they need to observe. • Prompt mentors to discuss professional growth goals with the protege very early in the first month and then to revise them each month thereafter.• Ask mentors to explain how to use the protegeís professional growth goals when selecting the person to observe.
C. There is no support for identifying an expert who might be worth observing, so the experienced person that is observed does not model what the protege needs to see. • Organizations should identify top performers, create a directory of persons willing to be observed, and list the nature of their strengths• Mentors should suggest people to observe whom they know are great models of just what the protege needs to learn.
D. The novice does not understand what the experienced person is demonstrating, so the modeling occurs but the protege doesn’t “get it”. • Mentors should explicitly help proteges to plan what will be observed.• Mentors go with the protege and observe the same event. Afterward, the mentor prompts protege comparison with own practices & goal setting.
E. The time for the observation is chosen randomly or for the protege’s convenience, and is not an appropriate or useful time or event to observe. • The mentor helps to arrange the observation and speaks in advance to the expert to be observed about what needs to be observed and when it would be best to observe that.