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Being a Mentor – How Not to Disserve Your Mentee

Being a Mentor

How Not to Disserve Your Mentee

When you agree to mentor another person, you offer to help someone in his/her development in the organisation. By mentoring, you have no agenda of your own and thus you are able to create a safe arena within which to develop a trusting relationship. Mentoring is not always easy and as natural as we expect. Here are some tips on how not to disserve your mentee.

1. Make Time

Cancelling appointments at the last minute, turning up late or leaving early or showing up for meetings in a rush without knowing your mentees’ priorities are common worst practices by mentors.

I agreed to mentor 3 young managers in my previous organisation. After a couple of months, I realised that I am not able to keep to all the meetings with my mentees while performing my daily role as the Head of Department; attending to several internal and external meetings. I found myself dancing on my schedules with my mentees – postponing appointments one hour prior to the meeting. I knew Eva, Jack and John were not very happy with me changing schedules frequently at the last minute, but they did not dare to tell me how they felt. I only learnt about it during the mentoring mid-way review feedback survey. Luckily I had another 9 months to repair my relationship with my mentees. Things turned out well after I committed myself to allocate the same priority to both my meetings with mentees and other business dealings. I have also learnt to delegate work to my team members – something which I taught my mentees to do!
Mentoring is a commitment – you need to set aside time to prepare for the meeting and afterwards to reflect and prepare notes. Therefore, do not over-commit to too many mentoring relationships at the same time.

2. Be Patient

Don’t Make your Mentee Become You

You may sometimes feel that you know exactly what to do, from similar experiences, when your mentee explains his/her challenges. So, it can be frustrating to see your mentee taking a longer time to find the right solution. Good mentors are patient, letting their mentees find solutions with guidance instead of blunt instructions, no matter how long it takes.

Eve just got her promotion to a Team Leader role in her department. When she related her challenges in people management and her problems in engaging her team members to be aligned with her objectives, I could see the then-me in her. Instead of sharing with her my problem-solving skills and letting her find the solution, I was telling her how to tackle the issues using the same way I did before. I told her what she should say and do. I even called her a week later to check if she had done exactly what I told her. Later, Eve shared with me that she was not very comfortable in doing exactly what I instructed, and that she would prefer to take more time to build relationship with her team members. It then donned on me that I have made one of the biggest mistakes in mentoring – I was focusing on ME rather than developing my mentee!
Mentoring is about developing mentees’ talents, not turning them into carbon copies of their mentors. A mentee’s success often follows a very different path from their mentor’s. Respecting and cultivating people’s individuality is more rewarding than just solving their problems. By doing so, mentors may even widen their own horizon.

3. Don’t Start Telling Too Many Stories

Sometimes a good personal anecdote is the perfect way to make a point. Your mentee wants to learn from your experience, after all. But don’t start telling too many stories that are more indulgent of yourself than helpful to the mentee.

Jack is a very quiet person. Our conversation tended to be very formal and sometimes I found myself referring to theories I picked up from books or articles, and at times I used my personal ‘war stories’ to relate to the subject. He listened attentively, usually. Our meeting could last about 1 to 2 hours – with me talking most of the time! I decided to ask him for feedback on our mentoring relationship and how else I could better support him as mentor. Jack said to me that my personal experience is a useful reference but he felt it was rather difficult for him to relate to his own challenges. He told me that it would be good to keep the sharing succinct and focus more on ways to address the issues. He liked the challenging questions I posted to him as they did help him think through the essence of the support and guidance he needed from me.
I have been reminded by this episode that mentoring relationship is a two-way street, not a lecture hall. I have also learnt to make sure I leave room for my mentee to make decisions, and encourage them to develop and trust their own judgement.

4. Mentoring Also Means: Giving Feedback

Every now and then, it might be appropriate to give your mentee some feedback which describes your response to the “story” you have heard. I prefer to package my feedback using the SBI technique:
  • Situation and circumstances at which the behaviour occurred.
  • Behaviour you have observed.
  • Impact of this behaviour on you and others.
You might, for example, want to give him/her positive feedback on how he/she has handled things so far. Or challenge his/her behaviour or attitude in response to the issue.
Whatever form your feedback takes, you should observe the following ground rules:
  • Ask your mentee if he/she would like to hear your feedback and respect his/her right to say ‘no’.
  • Focus on specifics and avoid generalisations, especially if you are giving feedback on the person. Use the Situation-Behaviour-Impact (SBI) technique.
  • Give less rather than more; focus on the key resources that will be most useful for the other person to hear.
  • Avoid wrongfully highlighting to your mentee that you are an ‘official’ mentor to his/her role.
  • Emphasise that your feedback is an opinion, not a fact. Emphasise that this is only your response, and that it says as much about you as it does about him/her.
  • Allow your mentee to respond to your feedback.
Mentoring is about believing in someone and then taking action to help that person be his or her very best. Do try to use the above tips while embarking on a fulfilling and rewarding experience.
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Amy BC Tan

Amy is the Executive Director at the Centre of Organisational Effectiveness (COE Pte Ltd). She has more than 20 years of experience in human resource management and organisational development in various industries.

She has held senior leadership positions with Nokia, Aon, Ministry of Manpower and Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee. She has led the transformation of the HR functions and several organisational development initiatives for multiple organisations.

Amy is also trained in Creative Problem Solving and certified as Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, an accredited practitioner in executive coaching and psychological instruments such as MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator®), DiSC, Harrison Assessment and Belbin Team Roles.

Amy can be reached via

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