Re-Vision of Characteristics of Effective Mentors

By Barry Sweeny, 2002


One questions we are often asked is, “What are the characteristics of effective mentors?” Here are several insights the author has had regarding this question.

1. We cannot answer this question until we first can answer, “Effective at what?”

One mentoring program may just target mentoring for the orientation of new employees. Another program may provide mentoring to support the professional development of all employees. Yet, both programs can claim that they are “effective” if they accomplish what they have intended. We can readily see that such different goals would require very different strengths, so that what is effective for mentoring in one program would not be very effective in the other. Since effectiveness is a function of program purpose, this article will discuss effective characteristics of mentoring for professional growth and improved performance, the major goal of focus in organizations doing most forms of mentoring now.

2. Mentoring is a partnership. How can we ask about the characteristics of effective mentors without also considering the characteristics of effective protÈgÈs, the other 1/2 of the partnership?

  • In some cases, mentoring partners must have the very same characteristics, as in the need to be an effective, empathic, active listener. Their partnership depends on their mutual ability to effectively communicate, which is a two way process.
  • In other cases, each of the partners must have complimentary but opposite characteristics for the partnership to have value. This means that the pair can be highly effective as long as one partner has a strength the pair needs and the other partner recognizes and benefits from the partner’s gifts.

An example of this is that mentors must be able to share their wisdom and experience. That is the very reason for selecting mentors who have greater experience than do their protÈgÈs. However, to benefit from all that experience, protÈgÈs must defer to, or at least consider the advice and experience their mentors offer. Sometimes this happens, but often it does not, as when the junior member of the partnership feels driven to demonstrate what they know and can already do. This is a very tricky problem which can lead the protege to trial and error learning, the most painful and slow approach. If growth is the goal and mentoring is a partnership, BOTH partners need to realize when they must defer to the views or experience of their partner.

Two factors are needed to make this work effectively:

  • The program needs to change it’s language so that “mentoring” is redefined as a more inclusive process. Try not to use the word “mentor” unless you specifically mean to exclude the protÈgÈ from something. Try to use the word “mentoring” as much as possible, to place the emphasis on what the pair does together, not just what one partner does. You will see examples of this from here on in this article.
  • The partners need to openly talk about the challenge of being partners when their experience levels and individual strengths may be very different. They need to determine how they might best work together to be an effective mentoring PAIR in which they both contribute to each other’s growth.
  • For example if one partner is more task-oriented and the other is more relationship-oriented, the PAIR can still be highly effective if they recognize, honor, and defer to each others’ strengths. This requires a task-oriented partner to listen and consider what is needed for PAIR effectiveness whena more relationship- orineted partner raises issues important to them. In other words, the issues raised may be important to the partner who is NOT seeing a need, not just the person who IS sensetive to a need. The ultimate benefit is the celebration of the diverse strengths and increased learning of both partners.

3. A list of the characteristics of effective mentors may not be the most helpful format for that information.

A list of characteristics is often a mix of “fuzzy” and “clear” descriptors, and as such, the list has minimal value in program planning, decision making, training, or program evaluation and improvement. Here is an alternative, more effective format which can be created from the list of characteristics, and which IS MUCH more helpful to the program.

1. Analyze the characteristics to see which of the following two categories they fit.

2. Create two new lists, one for each of the categories, by moving the characteristics to the appropriate category.

3. Follow the suggestions below for the use of these two lists in your mentoring program.

4. Effective Mentoring Roles:

Roles describe the kind of people that mentoring partners need to BE if they are to be effective. Examples include what this author calls the “scout code”, which includes characteristics like helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful”, etc.

5. Using the Effective Mentoring Roles:

  • Use the Effective Mentoring Roles to develop processes and criteria for mentoring partner SELECTION and MATCHING.
  • During participant recruitment and training, INFORM people about the roles, state expectations that mentoring partners will be these kinds of people, but do NOT try to TRAIN them to be those kinds of people.
  • People can learn new roles, but only through first learning specific behaviors. To fully understand this phenomena, read on.

6. Effective Mentoring Tasks:

Tasks are what effective mentoring partners DO. This means that the tasks are behaviors which can be modeled, observed, practiced, learned, and assessed.

7. Using the Effective Mentoring Tasks:

  • Identify and use SELECTION criteria which ensure that partners have a basic MINIMUM ability to do these tasks. A minimum is all that is needed:
    • IF the partners understand that they will be growing their abilities as mentoring partners, and…
    • IF the program supports that professional growth.
  • Use guided SELF-assessment to determine each individual’s need to grow in any of these abilities.
  • Guide each individual to use the data from the self-assessment to set goals and develop a plan for their professional growth.
  • Prompt each mentoring pair to share their growth goals with each other and to discuss and plan how they can support each other in living out their intentions to become the mentoring partners they want to be.
  • If you think it will work, also ask each mentoring pair to share their goals and plans with the program leaders as data to guide planning for future training and support activities and to position the program leader as the mentor of mentors (MoM).
  • Plan mentoring TRAINING and SUPPORT activities to remind participants of their commitments to grow, and to support that growth.