How Mentors Learn from Mentoring and Why You Should Care

Sweeny, B.W. (2003). Research Report on How and Why Mentors Learn from Mentoring and Why You Should Care. Best Practice Resources. Wheaton, Illinois, USA

The Author’s Best Practices Search
This is not a typical research report or process, such as starts with a problem, the formation of an hypothesis, design of a study to test the hypothesis, etc. The research being reported here is action research, a very long process in which the author has been involved, part-time for about 10 years and full-time for  about 5 years. The conclusions reached are drawn from intensive involvement with experienced mentors during many mentor trainings, program evaluations, mentoring of mentors, observations of mentoring practices, reviews of over 130 mentors’ journals for three years, and several hundred interviews or conversations with mentors to gain their perceptions about their own learning processes.

The inquiry has not been targeted, examining one or several narrowly focused research questions because when one is working so intensively with mentors and programs, the experience is integrated and diffused, not focused or isolated. Throughout this interactive process the author has been on a best practices search for every aspect of mentor programming and mentoring practice. However, it has all been organized by two broad questions:

  1. What works to cause improved performance of protégés and better results from the work of the protégés.
  2. Why does the practice(s) which “works” for those two goals cause the impact that it does?

Answering those two questions not only leads one to a very clear sense of best practices for those two goals, but it also clarifies how to sustain the impact and how to teach it to others.

One Finding From This Search
This report provides the findings from this broad multi-year inquiry for just one of the many phenomena which occur . This one occurs repeatedly, dozens and dozes of times, so we know it is not an unusual or fleeting phenomena. Rather it is quite routine. Experienced mentors approach the author and report that they believe they have learned from their mentoring at least as much, if not more, than has their protégé.

The Necessary Conditions For Mentor Growth

This occurrence is not just a routine for programs and mentor trainings done by us in our own consulting and training practice. Our experience includes program evaluations for clients and for their programs as well, so these are opportunities to continue the inquiry with hundreds of mentors who have not been trained by the author. And we find that many of these also report the same surprise at their own learning from being a mentor.

Certainly, many other practitioners in programs to which we have no exposure, report this same phenomena during conferences on mentoring. Through these conversations, we know this experience is not limited and may be nearly universal. But we have also found that it is not a guaranteed result of being a mentor. Not every mentor is a good one and not every mentor is expecting to learn from his own mentoring.

When we hear a mentor state this feeling regarding the impact of their own learning, we take mentors back through their thinking process to the root cause. When we do this we find two criteria to be essential prerequisites for the mentor learning phenomena to occur. The two criteria are:

  • The mentor must be effective. We define this to mean that the mentor has strategies to assess protégé needs and can adapt their mentoring to effectively target and meet those needs. Without this factor we believe the motivation for the next factor will not exist.
  • The mentor is a continual, active learner. We define this to mean that the mentor enters each  mentoring meeting with the intent that it is both to support the protege’s learning and to facilitate his/her own learning. This attitude is not just an openness or willingness to learn, but also an active planning to make it part of the agenda. That plan is to test out an assumption or an hypothesis about his/her own mentoring, or to experiment and determine the effectiveness of a mentoring strategy or a model, such as a model of learning.

This positions the mentor for continually learning, and as a result:

  • the mentoring is continually improving;
  • the mentor’s other work as an employee is continually improving.

This is exciting for the mentor.

This is also exciting for us because the demonstration of daily, continual inquiry into practice and daily learning is exactly the model we want the protégés to observe, understand, and internalize in their own day-to-day work.

Realizing this very idea is part of the surprise mentors report, for many originally go into mentoring with the unexamined assumption that being a mentor who is a “role model” means they must somehow be the perfect employee. Imagine their relief when they realize that is not the best mentoring model. Rather, what IS the best practice is the quest to become as effective as possible that characterizes employee, student, parent, manager, or teacher excellence.

Preparing Mentors to be Learners
In our experience, the mentoring program must prepare mentors to function this way for the daily work does not. Programs ensure that it occurs when, from the beginning, TWo things occur:

Mentoring is defined as this continual quest to become better and better;

Mentoring is defined as collaborative team work within a mentoring relationship which is a system of mutual support for mutual learning and growth.

To clarify, when we say mentoring is mutual support and learning, it is not that the mentor is the peer of the protégé with no more experience than the protégé and no greater wisdom to share. Rather, it is that each has some experiences and viewpoints which can prompt reflection, insights, and learning for the other.

For example, we have found the most common reported trigger for a mentors’ own learning is a question from the protégé about the mentor’s thinking process, decision making,  or reasons for an action. We have found this happens because protégés can only observe behaviors and not thinking, so they must ask mentors questions to get the mentors to “unpack” their thinking , decision making, or reasons, and make them accessible to the protégé.

Understanding this process has led us to incorporate in our own mentor training discussions of these very issues and clarification of the need for mentors to make their internal thinking processes available.

Part of the training is to get mentors to expect they will need to answer protégé questions by doing the unpacking, and to take the time and make the effort to do this critical work.

Part of it is to train mentors that, during a mentoring discussion, to reflect on the questions they internally ask themselves, as if they had to make the decision the protégé must, and then to ask those same questions of the protégé.

We have found that by doing this again and again, the protégé begins to internalize the questions that effective employees / students / managers, etc. must ask themselves, and they learn to ask themselves those questions on a routine basis. It is literally teaching the protégé to think and function at a higher cognitive level. It also establishes the understanding that the work consists of more than doing the tasks. It redefines ‘work” to include getting better every day at doing the tasks so that the effect of the tasks is increased.

Finally, as we talk with mentors who report surprise at the extent of their own learning, and we ask them to think back through the thinking process that led to their learning, they tell us pretty much the same things, virtually every time. Not every mentor has the entire process that clear in their own mind, but with our inquiry to prompt their own inquiry, this is what emerges. Just below, we present the sequence we have captured from these many mentor discussions.

The Mentor Reflection, Learning, and Improvement Process

Our analysis and synthesis of mentor explanations revealed that mentors learn through a reiterative process as follows:

1. Response to mentee questions and needs prompts mentor attempts to articulate what they do regarding the question. Often what they do is at a routine and less than fully conscious level. This makes describing it difficult, for the mentor is not fully aware of just what they are doing. That is the nature of a “routine”.

2. Trying to explain their own decision making process and actions prompts reflection of what and why they do what they do. Here the mentor must become conscious of what they have been doing at an unconscious level.

3. Self-reflection and collaborative interchange with mentees leads mentors to evaluate the effectiveness of their own thinking, choices, and behaviors. Mentors often end up wondering, :Why do I do it THAT way?”, and , “Is that really the best way to do it?”.

4. Evaluation of their own choices and behaviors leads mentors to openness to new choices, thinking and behaviors.  For example, mentors may ask themselves, “What would be a better way to do it?”.

5. Mentors integrate and then internalize learning experiences and immediately apply these insights to their own personal development and to practical work or career-related situations. This is the point in mentor thinking when an hypothesis is formed, such as, “I wonder if doing it a different way would make my work even more effective?”

6. The nest step in the process is usually development of a plan for work that would test the effectiveness of the new method or structure.

7. The process of reflecting on their own personal experiences and mentoring actions leads to learning from those experiences, the insights from which are also integrated into their mentoring style. An example is, “If that would improve my own work, how can I adjust my mentoring to help my protégé consider this idea for his/her own work too?”

8. Of course, there are minor variations in the process and the thinking that occur due to settings.

A. When the mentor is a high school student peer mentor, the learning from their mentoring is primarily focused on their near future, especially:

  • their own work as a student and how to become better at it;
  • their peer mentoring and how to improve that;
  • their future in college, and the implications of their learning for their success there.

B. When the mentor is a university student peer mentor, their mentoring insights are primarily focused on:

  • improving their own work as a student;
  • improving their peer mentoring;
  • the implications of the learning for their future career.

C. When the mentor is an adult, their learning from the mentoring is typically manifest in

  • their personal and professional development, such as for their current job or a desired promotion;
  • how they could prompt their protégé to use the insights to improve their work.

D. When the mentor is also a supervisor or manager, the mentoring insights are typically focused on:

  • making their supervision more like the mentoring role so that it results in greater professional growth and performance in their staff;
  • helping their protégé learn and use the insights in their own work as a supervisor.


1. Mentor trainings can prepare mentors so their own learning becomes as much the norm as that of their protégés.

2. Making mentor learning the daily norm is the single greatest means of ensuring that the quality of mentoring and the results of that mentoring are continually improved.

3. Making mentor learning the daily norm enlists the mentors in teaching their protégés to continually improve their own work.

4. It is the candid, collaborative, and mutual learning in the mentoring relationship which creates the structure and accountability for this process to occur and to be sustained to where it becomes insightful, exciting, and productive for both parties.

5. Conversely, without the accountability of making the time for collaboration and mentoring, the insights, learning, growth, and improvement for mentors and protégés will be limited. This is what happens when no mentoring program is in place.

6. The mentor’s training to (a) model continual learning in mentoring, (b) the support to be a continual learner, and (c) the extent of a mentor’s commitment to the protégé and to the mentoring process are the variables which determine the extent to which the above process occurs and the extent to which the benefits from it are captured for both the mentoring partners and the organization. Getting mentors who feel that commitment is not a matter of selection or matching, and probably not even of just training them. Learning to behave this way takes time and accountability that are not there after the training is done.

7. We have found that (a) the disposition of continual learning and (b) the commitment to do it and (c) to teach it to the protégé are a direct result of learning from the mentoring of mentors by a program leader. It is the structure and accountability that relationship as a model of the best mentoring process that make the final difference and that transforms mentoring practice to the highest levels of effectiveness. As the mentor learns by being on the receiving end of excellent mentoring, the understanding, motivation, and commitment increase.

8. The transformation becomes a norm in the mentor’s daily practice because, by receiving excellent mentoring and being prompted to unpack and apply the insights from it, the mentor becomes more effective at helping the protégé. That sustains the new practices because helping the protégé improve is the very reason the mentor became a mentor in the first place.