How to Be a Great Mentor Without All the Fuss

Did you know that there can be great satisfaction in formally mentoring others? It’s a way of “giving back” and can also be a way to learn some new things yourself. I have had my own share of satisfying as well as frustrating mentor-mentee relationships, and its taught me that the person I am mentoring should be taking responsibility for the logistics of our time together as well as their own growth and learning. A discussion of your mutual roles and responsibilities at the beginning of the relationship will increase the odds that you will enjoy the time in your mentoring role. Some tips to help you start off on the right foot with the person you are mentoring:

First make your role as a mentor explicit

Define your role: Your role(s) as a mentor should be confidante, guide, encourager, advice-giver, and (maybe) introductions to people and opportunities for the mentee. Make sure you describe your role clearly in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Indicate the amount of time you are willing to spend: Starting out slow will protect your time and allow both of you to see if you have a good fit in your relationship; I suggest an hour a month for six months, but this may vary depending on the reasons for the relationship. You can always increase or decrease the frequency and duration of your time together but begin with some explicit time frames in mind.

Discuss your willingness to be available between meetings: Let the mentee know if they can contact you between regularly scheduled meetings, and your preferred method of contact (phone, e-mail, text, etc.).

Describe your boundaries: You may not know yet if you will recommend this person to others for new opportunities. Make that clear. If this is a purely business transaction, make that clear too (i.e., if you won’t be inviting the mentee to your home for dinner to meet the family, for example).

Next, make your expectations for the mentee clear

Assure the mentee’s willingness to learn and grow: The mentee must take responsibility for their own learning and growth; you can’t force it on them. If they don’t, frustration is right around the corner.

Ask the mentee to plan the meetings: Let the mentee take primary responsibility for setting up your meetings. They should also prepare the agenda for the meetings. This saves you time and effort and helps them to be accountable for your time together.

Discuss the importance of their commitment: It is important for them to know that they are responsible for their own actions and career. When they make a promise to follow through on an action that will further their career, they should follow through. This shows they are committed to themselves as well as the relationship.

Decide on the circumstances that would require you to terminate the relationship: You should make it clear that this isn’t a “forever” thing; the end date of your time together should be agreed to (unless you extend it). Make sure you both understand the situations that would cause you to terminate the relationship. For instance, lack of follow through on actions they’ve committed to can make you believe you are wasting your time; that might be one big reason for terminating.

Now enjoy fuss-free mentoring

You can gain a lot of satisfaction mentoring others; it’s wonderful to watch people change and achieve their career goals. You may also personally learn and grow through the relationship. Make sure you start off on the right foot; the mentoring relationship will be fuss-free when you agree to some guidelines at the beginning of your relationships.


Speaking of mentoring, Anne Perschel at Germane Insights has written a wonderful post on how Maya Angelou benefitted from having a mentor, and went on to mentor Oprah Winfrey in “Mentor – What She Sees, What She Does, How She Is” . Stop over and view a different look at the power of mentoring.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

11 comments on “How to Be a Great Mentor Without All the Fuss

  1. Mary Jo,

    Well said and great timing. In my experience we address point 4 more on the “what areas are in play” side of the equation. You may have intended this in the earlier points.

    So if the agreed areas are leadership and emotional intelligence, when they ask about something outside those boundaries, I can push back or limit my answer to the context of the areas covered. This way we don’t have to list everything we won’t do up front, but rather focus on what we will do.

    Thanks for putting this in one handy reference!

  2. Thanks Mike. Excellent points. Love the focus on “what we will do”. Mentoring is hot right now – driven by gen x and y, I believe. Many have not had a mentor before, so discussion of “what we will do” up front is important.

  3. I know so many established, gifted, well trained and hungry to help boomers who genuinely want to mentor young, gifted leaders on the rise. The emphasis on the mentee establishing the agenda and being responsible for the follow up is a great great point. Part of our being ready and able to offer feedback is their being willing to pursue it…that’s part of the deal and adds value to their investment. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Bob, you bring up a great point. When the mentee actively pursues the mentor’s feedback it is one way that a mentor can gage the investment they are making in the relationship.

  5. Mary Jo,

    I am going to reference a link to these no fuss tips in an invitation for recruiting mentors and mentees for a new mentoring program within our trade association’s state chapter of ICSC(this page was linked to syndicated ICSC smart brief news. It seems most trade associations do incidental mentoring via committee work but we want to do intentional mentoring by boomers to our young nextgen business members. We are going to survey members and invite them to a mentoring matchmaking program to launch in 2011 if interest is high enough. After we realize the business member benefit we may extend the program to student members.

  6. These are good guidelines, but I would say in today’s fast paced world, mentors are “part-time.” You may not get consistent face time and you take what you can get. I’m not being a pessimist, just from my own experience it’s shifted from a couple of mentors to more, but less frequent.

  7. Scott, I would agree – sort of. Not sure what you mean by “part time”, but I know of several leaders (one of whom is a CEO in a very large organization) in several organizations I work in who participate in long term mentoring relationships with regular meetings. They see the value in those regular, consistent meetings and are willing to dedicate the time to them.

    On the other hand, I see some mentor-mentee relationships as you describe, as well as something in between.

    I don’t think there are absolutes here, and the length of time and frequency of meetings depend on what works for the mentee and the mentor. If someone is looking for a mentor to work with consistently over a longer period of time, even if it is a CEO – my advice is to “just ask” – you might get what you ask for. If not, consider your fall back position (are you willing to negotiate for “part time” if you can’t get what you asked for?).

  8. Mary Jo,
    As a mentor in the education field I appreciated the guidelines. The application of mentoring is a tad different (we are assigned for the school year). However, I thought your idea of having the mentee set the agenda was good. Too often school programs have only the “school’s agenda” in mind and it may not be all the mentee needs. New teachers are learning so much because of the demands ad universities do not always do the best job of “real life” preparation. Allowing the mentee to prepare the agenda gives them the freedom to choose what personal needs they have that I might not be aware of as mentor.


  9. Steven, exactly. And if the mentee is choosing and preparing agenda items, they will be much more likely to stay engaged, take action, and reach their goals. Best wishes in your mentoring efforts.

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