4 tips for mentoring with excellence

By June 19, 2013 5 Comments

There’s so much conversation about the importance of mentoring, but have you noticed? There’s not a lot of guidance on how to mentor well.

Here are four simple practices for mentoring with excellence, four small shifts you can make in any conversation to ensure you are truly supporting, empowering, and developing the person sitting across the table from you:

1. Reflect back what your mentee said to make sure you understood him or her.
A mentee comes to you to discuss a tough career dilemma: she wants to join a special company task force that the CEO has invited her to, but her boss wasn’t invited. She’s concerned that her boss – who sometimes isn’t so supportive – will feel threatened.

Before you launch into advice, make sure you’ve understood what she’s said, by repeating it back to her. You might say, “So, let me make sure I’ve got what you are saying: you would really like to join this task force, but you aren’t sure if it will have negative consequences with your boss – did I get that right?”

Why is this so helpful? First of all, if you know you will need to reflect back what she’s saying, you’ll be a better listener from the first moment of the meeting. Second, when she hears you reflect back what she’s saying, she’ll feel truly heard – and that will open up more connection, trust and openness in the relationship. And third, you’ll give her the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings so the two of you don’t waste time having a conversation on two different pages.

2. Ask what kind of support she wants.
Often, mentors assume their primary job is to give advice. The truth is there are lots of others ways mentors can give support: being a listening ear, being a brainstorming or problem-solving partner, being a cheerleader, or being an advocate. All of these are as important – if not more important – than giving advice.

Next time your mentee brings up a topic with you, take the opportunity to introduce to her this concept of different forms of support. You might say, “What kind of support would you most like from me right now? Would you like to do some brainstorming together, or for me to help you figure out what you really think/feel about this? Or are you looking for some emotional support in this rough situation? And so on. Talk with her about the different kinds of support and let her know you’ll be asking her to discern what kind of support she’s most looking for in any situation. This is actually great mentoring in itself; you are teaching your mentee a new skill, the skill of discerning what kind of support she needs.

3. Ask coaching questions.
A coaching question is an open-ended question (not a yes/no question or an either/or question), and it’s simple and short – less than ten words. Coaching questions are powerful because they help the person answering the question access their own inner wisdom. They aren’t there to help the person asking the question gather information. They are there to help the person answering further their learning, find clarity, or move forward the action – simply by pondering the right question.

“Are you sure your boss will be upset about this?” is not a good coaching question, because it is a yes/no question. A better version is, “What facts do you have about how your boss will react?” or “What assumptions are you making here?”

“Are you planning to tell your boss about this before or after you join the task force?” isn’t a good question either, because it’s an either/or question. A much more impactful question – one that will take the mentee further into their own answers and problem-solving is, “What’s most important about how you inform your boss of this?” or “What’s your intuition about how to tell your boss?”

4. When you draw conclusions from your own experience, say that that’s what you are doing.
Let’s say a mentee comes to you to talk about raising money for her business. Thought it might seem like you should think about everything you learned when you were raising money, and then just give her lots of advice based on that (Do a, b, and c. Don’t do x, y or z), that’s exactly what you don’t want to do.

Here’s what you might say instead: “I raised money for my business about x years ago. This was my experience…. these were some of my lessons learned….That was what was true for me – and it may or may not be true for you – in your time, in your circumstances. You have a different personality than me, different strengths, and the field is changing rapidly. Take with you what resonates here – and leave the rest.”

In the second example, the mentor is passing on her lessons learned, but she’s able to talk about them as part of her subjective experience – not as absolute truth and not as advice that tells the mentee what to do. This gives her mentee the opportunity to discover her own truth in relationship to her mentor’s truth – and that’s ultimately what’s going to lead her to her right decisions.

What are some of your lessons learned about mentoring?



Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Darlene Cary says:

    So much of effective mentoring advice comes down to being in the moment with the person you are coaching, and not having it be about you.

    Great tips! Thanks!

  • Deborah Reid says:

    Hello Tara:

    In the little research I have done in my own field, one of the single biggest differences between male and female mentorship is in the area of promotion. Most male mentoring relationships are focused on actively promoting a mentee while female relationships focus on problem solving.

    Significant strides could be made in my field if we were to encourage older women with expertise to a) mentor and b) spend some mentoring time actively promoting their mentee.

    Every little bit counts in getting women to lead more kitchens.

    P.S. Here in Canada there is rumblings that board gender balance will soon be legislated. Meaning more women on boards. Yeah!

  • Mary Liz Moody says:

    This is so timely, valuable, and insightful. Thank you very much, Tara! Recently I traveled all day in a car with a younger coworker and I wish I had read this post beforehand. I plan on keeping this for future reference.

  • Great reminders that nearly all women can benefit from a mentor–and ways to be more effective. I also just read in MORE magazine this morning that one of the most valuable benefits to a mentee is aided by a mentor that is not only wiser and more accomplished–but also has significant more influence or power within the organization–helping the mentees career in any way possible. (similar to your point #2) While I think it is valuable to be there to encourage and listen, finding women who are in our particular workplace who can help us on the job is very important. ~Kathy

  • That is excellent and the timing is so good. I’m a mentoring coordinator for 13 years now and lately I read “the mentor as a coach” by Jeremy Farrell. And the attitude of the mentor makes all the difference. ( Sorry for my writing, I’m french)

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