Picture of a two signs one pointing in one directions and the other . . . the other direction.

Which way to a good mentor?


A mentor is defined by the online version of Merriam-Webster as “a trusted counselor or guide.” As we noted in the article Coaching versus Mentoring, a mentor plays a fundamentally different role than a coach.  A mentor helps the mentee to grow and develop by transferring their experience over a relatively long period of time. A mentor can have an enormous impact on the trajectory of a person’s career. Even though mentors and mentees tend to have long-term relationships, those relationships will not be forever. Most professionals will have to establish relationships with several mentors over their career.  Understanding what makes a good mentor is an important piece of career knowledge.

Good mentors:

  1. Listen more than they talk. Mentors need to listen to what mentees say before they begin dispensing wisdom. Listening provides the context needed to help guide. A mentor that does not listen is just pontificating.
  2. Provide guidance.  Mentors deliver practical advice based on their experience. The guidance a mentor provides needs to be practical and based on the context. When a mentee surpasses the mentor’s experience level it is time to change mentors.  There is nothing wrong with surpassing your mentor.
  3. Educate. Mentors educate their mentees.  One of the primary goals of a mentor/mentee relationship is for the mentor to transfer knowledge so they can choose to change how they behave. Mentors educate and guide based on the insights they have gained during their lives.  Mentors without practical experience to pass on are not very useful.
  4. Are specific. Mentors are specific with the advice and guidance they deliver.  It is difficult to respond to glittering generalities. If a mentor can’t be specific it is an indication that they do not have the experience a mentee needs.
  5. Are available and accessible.   A mentor that you can’t talk to because they are too busy is only a mentor on paper.
  6. Are caring and supportive.  Mentors care about their mentees career and lives.  
  7. Are role models. Mentors are successful AND respected. Who would want to emulate or take advice from a failure or someone that is not well thought of?  A person that you would not want to be like will make it difficult to form a relationship deep enough to effectively listen to the advice they offer.
  8. Accept their role enthusiastically. Being a mentor is an investment. The mentor invests their time, energy and emotions.  If you have not asked and they have not agreed on the relationship, then there is no mentor/mentee relationship.
  9. Are goal driven. Mentoring is rarely an ad-hoc process.  The mentor and mentee need to agree on the goals and logistics of the relationship upfront. The relationship will evolve. However, both parties need to understand what the expectations and boundaries of the relationship are upfront.

Choosing a mentor is a complex transaction that most professionals will have to perform multiple times during their career. When choosing a mentor, be careful to look for someone who is able and willing to do all of these things with you.

Next: A simple checklist for setting up a mentorship