Mentoring Do's and Don'ts

Whether you have or haven't had a mentor to assist you in your rise to your present position is not the decisive factor in determining whether you can mentor another person effectively. Obviously, having had a trusted mentor who helped you grow and develop as manager material and as a human being is a net plus. You then have a role model to pattern your style of mentoring after. But, regardless, there are certain approaches to mentoring that all successful mentors practice and, equally important, don't practice.

A Mentor Is Not a Greyhound Bus

The longstanding Greyhound Bus advertising slogan is “Leave the Driving to Us.” A mentor's slogan must never be “Leave the Decision Making to Me.” You should never make decisions for your mentee.

Your counsel to the mentee is designed to fill in the blanks — to provide the mentee with options and more options — but the mentee must always make his or her own decisions. Mentors strive to make their mentees' ultimate decisions as informed and reasoned as possible. One of the overriding themes in all coaching and mentoring applications is the watertight objective to help people help themselves.

A mentor always exercises the power of suggestion. That is, wise mentors offer up platefuls of suggestions to their mentees. They pose alternatives; but they refrain, as much as humanly possible, from telling their mentees exactly what to do.

Know When to Say When

As a mentor, you must recognize that your guidance is most appreciated when it's specifically requested. This is not to suggest that you, as mentor, sit idly by like Marcel Marceau or Dr. Evil's pint-sized clone. No, your role is not to sit in silence or to utter a grunt of acknowledgement every now and then.

Nevertheless, dispensing specific advice to your mentee vis-à-vis his job responsibilities should be held back until he asks you for said advice. As much as possible, refrain from “let me tell you what to do” kinds of instructions. People are funny that way. In many self-help programs, for instance, it is practically written in stone that continually imploring — nagging, as it were — an abuser to shed an addiction is counterproductive. Overcoming an addiction is a very personal journey. It's a difficult pathway to start down, but it always begins with recognition and acceptance by the individual that his or her life is spiraling out of control. The same reasoning applies to the mentor-mentee relationship. Unsolicited advice on an unremitting basis will inevitably clog the ear of the mentee, who will eventually come to automatically disregard everything that you've got to say.

The Dialogue

In every successful mentor-mentee relationship, there is a dialogue. Leave the monologues to Leno, Letterman, and Stewart. This dialogue should be the rule. It should be relaxed, candid, and unconfrontational.

Mentoring is all about sharing experiences. Mentors impart the multiple lessons that they've learned to their mentees and help them better navigate the rough seas of their own careers. By absorbing these lessons — including both the mentors' mistakes and successes — mentees are better prepared to move forward with knowledge and confidence.

As a mentor, you are not a college professor delivering a lecture in an auditorium-sized classroom, with your mentee sitting around taking notes that she will have to memorize for a final exam. This is meant to be a one-on-one relationship with a robust give-and-take. It's a two-way street from start to finish.


To further expand on the importance of real dialogue in a mentor-mentee relationship, let's touch upon the notion of intimacy. It's been said that the mentor-mentee relationship is an “intimate” one. And it is.

But please get your mind out of the gutter — it's not that degree of intimacy. A firm handshake should be the extent of physical contact between the mentor and mentee. More to the point, an intimate mentor-mentee relationship necessitates genuine sharing of insights, observations, and suggestions. This give-and-take dialogue should be entirely uninhibited.

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