How to Be An Effective Mentor (and Help Other Mentors Succeed)

Laura Francis


How to Be An Effective Mentor (and Help Other Mentors Succeed)

If you’ve landed here, there’s a good chance that one of two things is true. A) You’re a mentor and you want to know whether your mentee(s) are benefiting from the experience or B) You’re a mentoring program administrator who wants to make sure their mentors are successful and able to properly self-assess their own effectiveness, as well. Nobody goes to college for mentoring (teaching, yes; mentoring, no). So when someone gains some experience and then gets asked to help mentor their colleagues for the first time, they often struggle with the ins and outs of how to be an effective mentor.

There are several ways to help yourself and your colleagues who are stepping into mentoring roles succeed. And thankfully, ti’s not rocket science. Generally, successful and effective mentoring includes creating a structured mentoring program with clear guidelines, taking educational courses and reading learning material on successful mentoring strategies, establishing rules of engagement with the mentee at the beginning of the mentoring relationship, and regularly seeking feedback throughout the mentoring cycle.

Sanity Check: Do You or Your Mentors Have the Right Qualities to Be Successful?

A man practicing how to be an effective mentor by having a conversation with a mentee on a video call.

In a recent blog, my colleague Sam Cook explained what it means to be a mentee. We won’t rehash all the details there, but to summarize his points, someone who’s a good mentee is someone who is:

  • Open to learning
  • Respects authority (within reason, of course)
  • Accepts feedback
  • Shows personal responsibility
  • Is a good communicator
  • Maintains a positive attitude
  • Possesses leadership skills or desires to

I know what you’re thinking. The qualities of the mentee don’t impact how well I succeed as a mentor! The opposite is actually true. Successful mentoring relationships rely heavily on a good match. If the mentor and mentee aren’t matched well on personality, traits, and goals, then the relationship is doomed from the start, regardless of how good you are as a mentor. Keep that in mind as you proceed.

Now, let’s turn our attention to effective and ineffective qualities of mentors.

Mentoring success truly comes down to the people involved. The success of the mentoring relationship relies on the level of commitment you have toward the mentoring relationship and your willingness to work with your mentoring partner to achieve the goals you set or the development needs you and your mentee identify.

There isn’t a magic formula for being a great mentor or mentee, but there are undoubtedly effective and ineffective characteristics that people display when it comes to mentoring. The good news is that these characteristics can be learned (and therefore changed!). Negative traits can be corrected, while positive traits can be achieved if you are willing to make the effort.

Here are five effective and ineffective characteristics of mentors.

Effective characteristics of mentors

Success as a mentor starts with a baseline of key traits. While variations in personality can impact how well mentors present these, each of these characteristics can be learned:

  • Spot the potential in others: Effective mentors have a positive view of others that greatly increases how much learning can be transferred. They push their mentees to achieve their goals and stretch themselves, largely because they believe the mentees have the potential to succeed.
  • Are networked and resourceful guides: Effective mentors enjoy a positive reputation and are held in high regard by colleagues at various organizational levels and in different functions. They can help broker new interpersonal connections for their mentees and can also act as a resource who provides insights into where to go for information and just-in-time learning.
  • Display patience and tolerance: Effective mentors allow mentees to make mistakes and then use the mistakes as positive opportunities to learn. They know that they were once in a similar position and have empathy for the mentees as they take risks and seek to grow in their desired skill or field.
  • Give encouragement: Effective mentors possess the ability to build up mentees’ self-esteem and encourage them. This is a quintessential trait of a mentor, in fact, and helps them embody the role of coach and advocate for their mentees. Mentors should not give false or inflated praise, but they should be encouraging.
  • See the big picture: Effective mentors have a larger perspective of the organization and their area of expertise. This helps them generate useful suggestions and bring up points that their mentees would otherwise not consider.

Ineffective characteristics of mentors

A key strategy to become and effective mentor is to be able to see where your own faults exist. And if you’re a program administrator seeking mentors and attempting to train mentors, these are the characteristics you want to look for that may need some correction or that could impact how successful someone will be in that role:

  • Too busy to nentor: Being busy doesn’t have to kill a mentoring relationship; however, being too busy will. If a person is forgetful, fails to return phone calls/texts/emails, misses scheduled meetings, or is not accessible in an hour of need, then they are too busy to be a mentor.
  • Use the mentee as help: Instead of having the mentee’s best interests at heart, an ineffective mentor passes on to the mentee some of the responsibilities, assignments, or extra work that the mentor does not want to do—even if it has nothing to do with the mentee’s development goals. This type of activity or mindset (what is actually an abuse of power) has no place in a mentoring relationship.
  • Overly critical: Yes, mentors need to help their mentees identify problems and mistakes, but some mentors take this too far and always point out why something is wrong. Ineffective mentors feel that their position gives them the right to point out mistakes—all of them. Mentoring should be about helping the mentee learn and discover, not about pointing out all the things they’ve done wrong.
  • Not with the times: Ineffective mentors do not keep pace with the times and don’t know the current trends, issues or strategic business case of their company. In today’s fast-paced world, mentees need mentors who can help guide them with up-to-date ideas and information.
  • Ego-striving: Unfortunately, some mentors feel it might endanger their place in the spotlight if their mentee becomes more successful than they are. For these people, mentoring is not an activity they should take part in. Always having to be a notch up on the mentee will interfere with the learning relationship that should be occurring and be a disservice to the mentee.

Mentoring can be a rewarding endeavor, and if you approach it with the right mindset and intentions, it can have a powerful impact on you and your mentoring partner.

4 Critical Steps to Becoming an Effective Mentor

Now that we know what a good mentor looks like from a characteristics perspective let’s dive into the steps you can take to become an effective mentor. Again, these steps aren’t just for mentors. They’re for anyone involved in the mentoring process, including (and especially) talent development leaders who need to build effective mentoring programs.

Step 1: Create a structured mentoring program

Imagine a student driver and a driving instructor taking a car out for a lesson. Ideally, the car doesn’t fall apart when the student driver turns the key in the ignition. The reason that (usually) doesn’t happen is that the vehicle was adequately designed and properly structured before it was sold.

Image of a car with a driver and passenger on a road with multiple branching directions.

The occasional car recall aside, most cars work because they’re thoughtfully designed from rather elegant schematics. They have an internal and external structure that ensures smooth operation. That said, the car doesn’t decide where you need to take it — that includes self-driving vehicles. The student driver and their instructor can drive that car pretty much anywhere and in any direction, within the limitations of what the car is capable of achieving based on its design.

Mentoring programs and mentoring relationships are very similar. The better the program and relationship structures are, the more effective the mentors will be. In this example, the driving instructor is the mentor, and the student driver is the mentee. The mentee is in control, taking the car where it needs to go, while the driving instructor is helping to guide and correct the course and how the car is driving until the mentee is able to confidently take the wheel without guidance.

But this only really works in practice when the mentor doesn’t have to worry about the program going off the rails or falling apart. So that structure is critical.

That begs the question: who sets up that structure? Well, there are two parts to that. One part is the overall program itself. That’s the responsibility of the program administrator to establish a functional program structure with clear guidelines that dictate where and how the mentoring relationship should go. Outside of that, there’s a lot of freedom of movement.

The other part of that structure is what’s established between the mentor and the mentee before the car gets moving. That takes us to our next point.

Step 2: Take courses and read learning material on being a better mentor

A core tenent of being a mentor is having some type of experience that others can leverage for their own growth. That experience is typically something most mentors have gained over time through trial, error, and study. And while leaning how to be an effective mentor is certainly something you will learn over time through trial and error, you don’t want to skimp on the study aspect.

Mentoring is a practice-driven social learning style. There are many repeatable strategies mentors can employ to be successful, yet the social aspect can be unpredictable if you’re not prepared for it. Thats where mentoring education and learning can help.

When you take courses, enroll in masterclasses, and read eductional material on mentoring, you can help improve your mentoring abilities in the following ways:

  • Deepen your understanding of the mentor-mentee dynamic
  • Generate better understanding and sensititives around sensitive DEI topics
  • Gain a toolbox of converstational and engagement stragtegies
  • Expand your network through engagement with other mentors and mentoring program leaders
  • Stay up-to-date on best practices
  • Learn the nuances of mentoring in different formats, such as virtual, remote, and in-person
  • Validate your own skill development

Finding the right training and resources can be a challenge. But it’s also one of the key benefits that MentorcliQ’s customers get as part of using the platform to launch and grow mentoring programs. MentorcliQ’s customers gain exclusive access to a large body of training materials, video series, masterclasses, and a vibrant mentoring community with monthly and annual events. The best way to learn more about how to get access is to book a demo!

Step 3: Establish rules of engagement with the mentee

An soundly and thoughtfully structured mentoring program allows both the mentee and mentor to focus solely on the relationship and the mentee’s growth. But even within that context, both the mentor and the mentee need to agree what that mentoring relationship will look like at the outside.

Program administrators can provide some guidelines around this. For example, the program can be designed with a monthly meeting cadence and hour-long sessions on different topics. However, the mentor and mentee will still need to hash out some details on what this engagement looks like once they begin interacting.

For that, we recommend creating a mentoring agreement. We have an post on mentoring agreements, so we recommend you click over there and read more. To summarize those points:

  • Mentoring relationships work best when mentors and mentees agree to a set of terms
  • The agreement should be a collaborative document
  • You should put the agreement into writing
  • Don’t b afraid to refer back to the agreement if the bounds of the mentoring relationship aren’t being respected by either party

We also recommend you check out our Mentoring Masterminds video on How to Use Mentoring Agreements for Better Relationships.

Step 4: Regularly seek feedback during the mentoring cycle or relationship

Feedback is an integral part of success. Those who assume that they’re always doing something the right way are likely to not only make mistakes, but continue to make those mistakes. A lack of accepting or asking for feedback is what lets willful blindness creep in.

Mentors who are effective at what they do tend to be individuals who have learned how to ask for and accept feedback. That takes a lot of humility, especially if you’re in a traditional mentoring relationship where you’re supposed to be the expert in the room. Nevertheless, we all have something to learn, and we’re not always correct in our approach.

Feedback helps mentors course correct and provide a better experience to their mentees. It’s also something that can be both structured and unstructured, organic and inorganic. A good mentoring engagement will have a bit of both.

From an inorganic perspective:

  • Make feedback a regular part of the mentoring relationship by sending mentees quick feedback surveys at regular intervals.
  • Read and listen to that feedback. If needed, discuss feedback with mentees.
  • Be consistent with the approach to feedback. Don’t throw the mentees for a loop with random questions. Instead, create a standardized question format that you ask every time.

From an inorganic perspective:

  • Look for signs that the your approach isn’t working and ask for immediate feedback on what you can change.
  • Especially be on the lookout for signs that your mentee may be uncomfortable, either with discussion topics, recommendations, or strategies you’re using or asking them to use.
  • Ad-hoc feedback can help build trust that you’re serious about being the best mentor possible.

The symbiosis of structured and spontaneous feedback mechanisms not only enriches the mentor-mentee relationship but also fosters a culture of continuous improvement for the mentor. Ultimately, the mentee benefits from this as the mentor gets better at navigating the complexities of the mentor-mentee engagement.

Remember: the aim of mentorship isn’t just to guide someone through a specific challenge or career stage but to instill the skills and mindset needed for lifelong development. Your willingness to adapt based on feedback is a testament to your commitment to that long-term growth—for both you and your mentee.

When Mentors Are Effective, Everyone Wins

The benefit of effective mentoring can, indeed, be quantified. For example, one study on mentors who were trained to be peer mentors for individuals Autism Spectrum Disoders found that training to better understand ASDs resulted in better outcomes.

Quite often, training is a matter of finding something domain-specific related to the mentoring relationship and training mentors on how to engage in those types of relationships. E.g., the how to mentor new hires in an onboarding program versus how to mentor emplyoees from historically underrepresented groups in a high potential program.

If you’re a mentor, think deeply about the type of program or mentoring relationship you’re going to engage in and seek out training to cover areas where you may struggle. And if you’re a program administrator launching or managing programs, find or create the training material that will lead to more and measurable success for your mentors.

Laura Francis

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