Six steps on the path to successful mentoring

Jan Bowen Neilsen By Jan Bowen-Nielsen, Quiver Management

26 October 2015

Being a good mentor is not about telling your mentee what to do, says Jan Bowen-Nielsen

Mentoring is just giving good advice, isn't it? Not quite. Being a mentor is a really rewarding experience. You are able to share your wisdom and experience. You are "giving something back" and making a difference. However, the very fact that you as the mentor are more experienced and probably older can lead to one of the biggest pitfalls: that you start to give advice.

To make matters worse, your mentee may encourage you to give advice with questions like "What do you think?", "What would you do?" or even simply "Do you think this is a good idea?" Through these questions mentees can signal that they are not taking responsibility for developing their own solutions. You may feel compelled to help, but in reality that will just reinforce their helplessness (and show how clever you are).

The following are six ways that you could be a more effective mentor:

1. Good contracting

Ensure that you manage expectations well upfront and reinforce them regularly. Explain your role and their role in the relationship. Repeat this at the start of each session if either of you has a tendency to slip into asking for and giving advice. Be explicit that you will not give advice and explain why it is important that they find their own solutions.

2. Don't solve their problems

You are there to help your mentee grow and develop, not solve their problems. So, focus on understanding the structure of the problem and what is stopping the mentee from solving it on their own. Success is measured in their increased awareness, capability and growth, not by the fact that you have provided them with an action plan.

3. Keep asking open questions

Using open questions – such as "what?", "where?", "when?", "who?" and "how?" – is a great way to develop different perspectives on an issue and will help to ensure that the mentee remains responsible for the thinking. When you are about to deviate from an open question, consider first the reason for doing so, and whether this is truly going to help the mentee. Ask yourself: "Am I sharing an experience, giving feedback or offering suggestions to help my mentee grow and develop or am I just satisfying my compulsion to solve their problem?"

4. Refuse

Be strong and refrain from giving advice or permission. Say it nicely so you don't break rapport. You could, for example, say: "I am flattered that you seek my advice, but I feel it is more beneficial when I help you find your own solutions."

Explain why it is important that they own the outcome of your mentoring conversations. If a mentee asks: "What do you think?" you could respond with: "I think we are making good progress and that if we look at it from another perspective you may be able to identify more options."

That way, your response is more focused on the process, rather than the solution, and you demonstrate your belief in their abilities.

5. Look for patterns in the mentee's thinking and behaviours

Analysing patterns can give important insights into how the mentee approaches problems and opportunities. For example, are they missing a perspective that stops them from seeing certain solutions? If a mentee keeps appearing unsure and asking for advice, is it a confidence issue? Are they doing the same in the workplace and, if so, what impression does that give their manager?

6. Look for patterns in your own thinking and behaviours

In the same way, when you give (or are about to give) advice, look for patterns in your own behaviour. Ask yourself: "How come I, as the mentor, keep ending up in a situation where I feel compelled to give advice? How can I change this pattern? What can I do to develop my approach and my skills to be more effective?"

ICAS is a member of the EMCC, the leading professional body for mentoring and coaching in Europe. Jan Bowen-Nielsen trains mentors and coaches and is ICAS’s liaison person with EMCC.


  • Career mentoring resources

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