The First Month of Mentoring

by Barry Sweeny, 2003


If a mentor is experienced and well trained, the first month of working together with a protege will be packed with learning and positive experiences for both mentor and protege.

If a mentor is new mentor or experienced but not well trained or prepared for the role by the mentoring program, then the pair will still learn a lot, but probably the process will be more spotty or inconsistent. Some days you may end up feeling great and some parts of the process you might feel are not as useful.

Either way, the best advice I can offer for this first month or so is as follows:

  • Much of what the protege must learn right away in a new situation is “one right answer” kinds of information. Examples include:
    • “Where is the rest room?”
    • “Is there a limit on the number of copies I can make?”
    • “Where should I park and not park?”
    • “What are the expected arrival and departure times for work?”
    • “What is the expected dress code?”
  • Note that there are TWO KINDS of “one right answer” questions above:
  • “Where is the rest room?” and “Where should I park?” require NO JUDGMENT to answer, just knowledge.
  • The other questions also have one right answer, BUT these questions could have very different answers in different organizations. These questions are answered in each unique organization after a series of experiences (sometimes chaos) and a decision by someone or some group has to what the “right answer” will be from that time on.
  • In other words, the answer to “Where is the bathroom” is not a solution to an organizational problem, but the answers to “expected arrival and departure times for work” are very tied up in the traditions and culture of a place.
  • Another distinction is that not knowing where a bathroom is located is a small personal issue and not likely to get a protege fired. However, not knowing the unwritten expectations for arrival times at work might lead a protege to decide that him/herself, and that COULD get them in major trouble.
This is why it is often so important during the first few weeks for the protege to be a very good listener to your mentor, and to defer to the mentor’s advice on most of what you discuss. The mentor knows this tricky “one right answer” stuff and the proteges don’t. Proteges need to learn it fast. ┬áLearning it from someone else is faster and it helps them avoid trial and error learning, the slowest and most painful way to learn.

  • Later on in the mentoring process, there are very few “one right answer” kinds of questions.
  • Later on most of what the protege will be learning will be much more complex and sophisticated, requiring experience and judgment. In those cases, the mentor will still be a big help because of his/her experience. But the protege’s views and own sense of judgment will be nearly as valid as their mentor’s advice by that time.