JeanAnn Nichols

Empowering your employees to become great mentors can help your company adapt to today’s reality and prepare for tomorrow’s challenges. A mentor is someone who helps another person grow, develop, or progress forward in their career. Often a mentor helps a person define their career goals. By learning from a mentor’s own history and experience, a mentee can achieve career goals and achievements at a more rapid rate.

As an executive mentor and leadership coach, I am passionate about helping diverse leaders in the technology industry increase their impact and career satisfaction. At key turning points in my career, I had access to mentors who helped expand my perspective and gave me the confidence to know I could achieve more. Because mentoring is so critical in today’s work environment, I wanted to share four tips for how anyone can become a great mentor.

Great mentors increase retention and career advancement

In this highly competitive labor market, mentoring programs help attract and retain employees. The Sun Microsystems/Oracle study of its internal mentoring programs found that retention rates increased to 69% for mentors and 72% for mentees while the retention rate among non-participants was just 49%.

Mentoring programs also support career advancement. The Human Resources department of Sun Microsystems/Oracle compared the career progress of over 1,000 employees over a 5-year period and found that employees who received mentoring were promoted five times more often than people who didn’t have mentors. The study also found that mentees and mentors were approximately 20% more likely to get a raise than people who did not participate in the mentoring program. According to a study by the Association of Talent Development, 75% of executives believe mentoring was key to their success.

The benefits are more than just financial. An Association of Talent Development study found that the top three benefits mentees experienced were professional development, a better understanding of organizational culture, and the development of new perspectives. Mentors also benefit, citing that mentorship allows them to develop new perspectives and leadership skills while providing insight into the organization.

Mentoring can help employees feel acknowledged for who they are, in addition to the recognition they get for delivering results. Recent research by the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley found that employees who felt recognized were 23% more effective, but people who felt valued or cared for were 43% more effective.

4 tips for building a great mentor relationship

Preview of how to be a great mentor

1. Start out with the right “mentor mindset”

In order to become a great mentor, it’s essential to start out with the right mindset. Caring is key. To build a trusting relationship, to guide someone forward, the mentor really needs to care about where their mentee is and where they want to get to. Caring doesn’t always mean “liking” the person — it’s recognizing and appreciating the value this employee can bring, and believing they can develop their skills to increase their impact. A great mentor cares about the mentee’s success.

A great mentor is wholly present, making the mentee feel like they are the most important thing in the world (which they are, for the agreed meeting time).

I like to take a couple of deep breaths before I walk into a mentoring meeting to clear my mind of the million other things vying for my attention. I recommend that mentors remove distractions, put their phones away, silence notifications, and turn off their screens. When meeting in a public place, it’s important to be accessible to the mentee, not the rest of the room. The right body language can help reduce interruptions.

Curiosity is also an essential element of the mentor mindset. Especially in cross-generational conversations, mentors shouldn’t assume they understand what a mentee is saying. I recommend getting curious and using questions and prompts like “Tell me more about…” and “Can you describe that, so I understand…” to gain more context and clarity.

The mentor mindset also relies heavily on patience — mentors must understand that mentees may fail over and over. The mentor’s job is to help their mentee build resilience and support their journey by encouraging a growth mindset. When people embrace a growth mindset, they learn to view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve.

I also believe mentors must “lead from behind.” This phrase reflects a mindset that you are trying to see through your mentee’s eyes — not standing out in front or up above. This can be one of the hardest elements for most leaders. It doesn’t come naturally to let someone else lead, give up control, or stand in a different viewpoint. But it’s so important to help your mentee solve their own problems.

2. Build a solid foundation with a strong first meeting

A great mentor/mentee relationship begins with a solid kick-off meeting. Mentors must start by building rapport. They should strive to learn about their mentee’s interests and hobbies and look for common ground. I recommend asking, “How are you feeling about starting this relationship?”

I also believe it’s essential for mentors to use this opportunity to role model effective meetings. This is why it’s critical to be on time, at the right place, with full attention (as I mentioned in the previous section, mentors must minimize their physical and digital distractions).

Great mentors are not expected to be perfect, but they should strive to be authentic. Mentees may feel intimidated or nervous, and mentors can help dissipate some of these feelings by being vulnerable and sharing their failures or shortcomings as well as their successes. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know” if a mentee asks a question the mentor doesn’t know the answer to.

This first meeting may involve more logistics than subsequent sessions because this is the time when mentors and mentees should set expectations about each of their roles, establish the structure for their meetings, decide on meeting time and location, and discuss the confidentiality of these discussions.

I also recommend taking a moment before the end of the meeting to uncover any gaps in expectations. Do both parties feel satisfied with what they’ve discussed and committed to? Setting a solid foundation is important to avoid future obstacles.

3. Create clear goals

Establishing mentorship goals will help the mentor and mentee define what success looks like and understand when they’re “done” with their engagement. Since the mentor and mentee have likely had some initial contact, the mentor likely already understands what the mentee’s goal is — whether it’s something like career paths, subject matter expertise, or learning how to network — but it’s important to dig a little deeper. Here are a few questions I recommend mentors ask mentees in order to clearly define their goals. (I provide a more in-depth exercise in my course).

Different people learn differently — some prefer spreadsheets, others prefer vision boards, and others like to see bullet points. Mentors and mentees should discuss the mentee’s preferred method of tracking and set it up. They can realistically anchor what the end game looks like, and then start to build a path to get there.

4. Ask powerful questions

Great mentors don’t have to know everything relevant to their mentee’s stage or challenge, but they do need to ask open-ended questions, listen, and acknowledge their mentee. A mentor brings great value when they teach the mentee to find their own answers. Powerful questions evoke clarity, create greater possibility, reveal new learning, and generate action. Powerful questions are open-ended, come from a beginner’s mindset, are clear and succinct, are impactful, and happen in the moment.

For example, if a mentee says that they have a career opportunity and they’re unsure if they should take it, the mentor could ask, “What would happen if you took the opportunity? What would happen if you didn’t?” or “What are the possibilities?”

Another example would be if a mentee says, “I’m really struggling with project X, I think I’ll hire an additional program manager to fix it. Do you think that’s right?” The mentor might ask: “And if that fails, what will you do?” or “How else might a person handle this?”

Powerful questions only stay powerful when mentors listen for the answer and ask a follow-up question. In our adult lives, it’s pretty easy to go through our days on the surface, without digging deeper and getting curious. In order to truly engage, mentors must practice listening to understand, rather than to speak, listening for what’s not being said, and listening for when the conversation needs upleveling.

Remember that meetings should be led by the mentee. Mentors can give them space to lead by asking questions, listening for the answers, staying curious, and asking some more.

Mentoring is a powerful tool that benefits both individual participants and your company on the whole. The skills I’ve shared here are necessary for creating a powerful mentor/mentee relationship. By helping your employees learn how to make the most of mentorship, you’ll be helping them to grow their network and gain different perspectives while developing new skills and talents. Who doesn’t want that for their people?

For more ways to grow your own leadership skills and to help your colleagues thrive, start developing your leadership mindset with our workbook, The Leadership Mindset: 6 Key Behaviors to Develop.

Page Last Updated: July 2021