First-time Mentor? Here are some tips.

May 4 · 5 min read

There have been a lot of discussions on mentorship and sponsorship lately. I am told that mentorship puts the responsibility on the individuals whereas sponsorship makes it the leaders’ responsibility to create an environment where the individuals are recognized for what they already do.

I am not sure if that is entirely right or wrong. What I *am* sure of, is that a mentor is not supposed to “tell” you how to do things. A mentor, from my experience, is like a coach. They ask questions so you can learn your own strengths, identify the gaps you have, and then ask some more questions (and provide examples) so you can recognize what you want to do and where you want to go. A mentor does not tell you what you should do or where you should go, but will definitely walk you through the possibilities so you can decide what is right for you.

Merriam Webster defines a mentor as a trusted adviser, guide, and a coach. The word originates from ancient Greek literature.

In Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Odysseus was away from home fighting and journeying for 20 years. During that time, Telemachus, the son he left as a babe in arms, grew up under the supervision of Mentor, an old and trusted friend. When the goddess Athena decided it was time to complete the education of young Telemachus, she visited him disguised as Mentor and they set out together to learn about his father. Today, we use the word mentor for anyone who is a positive, guiding influence in another (usually younger) person’s life.

So when I was recently asked to mentor someone, I wanted to make sure I learned from others (especially what they may have learned the hard way) and asked the twitter world to share the ONE tip or advice they’d give a first-time mentor. I received so many replies with very valuable advice! (Yes, twitter can be an amazing place!)

The most consistent responses were around:

  • Listening and asking (open-ended questions) more and talking/advising less and
  • Recognizing that the mentor and the mentee are here to learn.

I felt that it’d be very useful to myself (and others) if I collected the responses into a blog post for easier reference. Here are the responses from those that gave me explicit permission to include them and their response in this blog post. I will update the post if and when I receive new responses (and permission).

  • Phrase as much as you can as leading questions, not as advice. — Josh McKenty
  • Listen: You will learn as much if not more than your mentee in the process. — Adrian Cockcroft
  • It is ok to not know. Don’t presume. As in, *try* not to presume as much. Try asking more questions than you give answers. Ohh. Stop talking and let them think. — Erwin van der Koogh
  • You’re both here to learn. — Nathen Harvey
  • Don’t focus on how to do things, focus on why we do them and let the mentees work out the how (unless they get stuck, in which case explain how to do things and why not to do something different) — Carlo Alberto Ferraris
  • Ask open-ended questions and then wait. — Matt Weagle
  • Mentoring is successful when both parties walk away better. Listen more than you speak and always think about what they’re NOT saying. — Ryan McAdams
  • Your way is not the only way, and in fact probably not the best way, and that you’re not here to show them THE way, only to help others find the big potholes on THEIR way. — Jason Sherron
  • Provide homework. Have your mentee come to meetings with topics they’d like to cover. — Joe Onisick
  • The biggest thing I dismissed initially that I embraced later was discussing up front expectations and setting goals around mentoring. — Gerald Coon
  • The best mentors don’t always have all the right answers, but ask the right questions. — Alexandra Krasne
  • Be kind. Try to ensure you and the mentee are as comfortable as possible with this relationship. And, listen. — Matthias Haeussler
  • Accept the fact that some mentees disappear or never bother getting mentored. — Shalah Allier
  • Some of my mentees were too scared to ask what they thought were ultra basic questions which they thought I would expect that they have to know them. So sometimes you have to poke them a bit to get them to ask such questions. — Shalah Allier
  • Be yourself. Don’t try to be the One With All The Answers because that will never work. Work out early on if you enjoy spending time with that person and if you both feel it is of value. Listen a lot too, and learn about yourself. But be yourself. — Paul Johnston
  • Listen more, ask more, advice less. — Hany Azzam
  • Don’t be super blunt. — Jon Almond
  • Define what you want to be first, create a plan to get there. For both. Easy to get caught in day to day shuffle otherwise. — JJ McMahon
  • Listen more. I used to try to tell mentees everything I knew rapid fire like. It seems to work better if I get them to describe the problem in their own understanding first and then iterate from there. — Jeff Schroeder
  • Remember where you came from. — Rob Sterry
  • Go easy on them. Every person is different. — Krishna Desai
  • Insist on a learning goal. So more questions and listen more than talk. Care about the outcome. Say what you believe no one else will tell them, so long as it is true. — Kit Merker
  • Explicitly keep track of their issues (and possibly take notes after conversations to help you) and follow up on them in the next conversation. Shows you’re listening, and makes the mentee more likely to act on actionable advice, or at least you can discuss why they didn’t. — Ben Packer
  • Active listening. — Adam Stein (Adam also wrote several relevant blog posts on Everwise; here’s one that features him and his work.)
  • Be yourself and ready to help and share. — Rupak Ganguly
  • Don’t wait for them to come to you; often the worry is about wasting your time. Be proactive, set up scheduled meetings/syncs even if it seems like there’s nothing to talk about to show you’re there when you’re needed. — Colleen Briant
  • Try to find a communication style that works for both of you. — Colleen Briant
  • A lesson to teach oneself is that one person won’t have all the answers you need. — Colleen Briant
  • Learn to ask good questions. Questions matter way more than advice. — Barrett Brooks
  • Don’t limit yourself. Learn multiple disciplines, have adventures and never stop being yourself for anyone or anything. — Charlie Lopez
  • Be your authentic self. — Yvette Thornton
  • Put oneself in the shoes of the mentee and meet them where they are life stage and business stage-wise. Too many mentors give advice from the their ivory tower. — Jeff Hardison
  • Be honest, even if the truth hurts. — @esacteksab
  • Listen, with both ears. — Suzanne Ambiel

Thank you everyone for the golden nuggets of wisdom. I really value your time and your thoughtful advice.