Seven Habits of Highly Effective Mentors

How to make the most of being a mentor.

The concept of a mentor was introduced to us by Homer: In The Odyssey, on the eve of his epic voyage, Odysseus leaves his son Telemachus in the care of his trusted friend, Mentor. It is later revealed that Mentor is actually Athena—goddess of wisdom, inspiration, skill, and strategy—in disguise.

Mentors, whether professors or practitioners, play a critical role in the personal and professional development of individuals—in the nonprofit world and beyond. They are also invaluable to society as a whole, as the insight and practical experience they provide pave the roads to success for future generations, enabling them to explore new ground and take on new challenges more swiftly by avoiding some the journey’s initial stumbling blocks.

As students, we are fortunate enough to encounter potential mentors on a regular basis. Our experience engaging with possible mentors has ranged from never getting a reply, to getting an introductory email, to learning to count someone as family. What turns an advisor or boss into a trusted mentor, someone whom others turn to for wisdom, inspiration, skill, and strategy? What can you do to maximize your effectiveness as a mentor? Below we present—from the perspective of a mentee—seven habits of highly effective mentors:

1. Humanize yourself. Sometimes the impressive titles on your desk and the awards on your wall can make you seem pretty intimidating, discouraging us from speaking frankly about our problems or asking questions we fear will seem silly. We wouldn’t be meeting with you if we didn’t already respect and admire you, so don’t be afraid to admit your own stumbling blocks. Make yourself more relatable by sharing a big mistake you made, a regret you have, or something you’d do differently in hindsight. Such a confidence makes it easier for us to admit our own struggles and helps us see that failures are natural pit stops on the road to success. Step off the pedestal we’ve placed you on, and remind us that even the Greek gods could be fallible like mortals.

2. Make regular appearances. Just as constellations offered ancient civilizations comfort with their seasonal presence, you give us reassurance when you check in with us periodically. Sometimes we hesitate to contact you until we have something big to report. Make an effort to keep in touch, especially if you haven’t heard from us in a while. An unsolicited email with a link to an article of interest and a line asking how we’re doing is a thoughtful and easy way to reach out. One of Jennifer’s mentors makes a point to wish her happy birthday every year via Facebook or a quick email. It is a small but powerful gesture that makes him stand out.

3. Provide balanced feedback. Once you feel you’ve gotten to know us, give us honest feedback about our performance and personality. This is valuable insight that you are in a unique position to offer. One of Nina’s most influential mentors is like a coach. When Nina was having a hard time, this mentor told her that she believed in Nina’s potential and listed qualities she saw as her strengths. She shared a few things Nina hadn’t identified, and her encouragement changed the way she thought about herself. Even more empowering is this mentor’s constructive feedback. She told Nina not only how she could improve, but also gave her specific, actionable recommendations for how to do so. She anticipated the hurdles Nina might face and provided strategies for how to best tackle them.

4. Ask for something in return. No good relationship is one-sided. You are giving a lot to your mentees, and while many mentors consider the feel-good nature of mentoring reward enough, don’t hesitate to ask your mentee for a favor or two. For example, if you’re a professor, perhaps your student mentee can write to the Dean about how much she enjoyed your class, advise incoming students on how to make the most of a research internship with you, or serve on a department curriculum review committee to determine more effective ways of teaching the material. We’re flattered to be asked and welcome the opportunity to show our gratitude.

5. Foster community. Establish a sense of community by inviting us and your other mentees to group get-togethers outside the office or classroom. This “behind-the-scenes” exposure to your world allows us to learn about the many other parts of your life you value beyond work, such as family, friends, and hobbies. Jennifer’s mentor hosts a holiday party each year with his family, as well as periodic happy hours at local restaurants. His mentees always look forward to the chance to get to know students from different years, as well as the opportunity to spend time with our mentor outside a formal work setting. Jennifer was touched when another advisor invited her to share Thanksgiving with his family after learning she wasn’t going to be able to fly home to see her own.

6. Make introductions. Just as companies have a board of directors to guide their growth, we benefit from developing a diverse board of mentors or a mentoring team. Like the pantheon atop Mount Olympus, a group of mentors can offer broad expertise and even create the opportunity for new partnerships. Encourage us to think critically about whose guidance can build on yours and address the other needs or facets of our life. Connect us with individuals you know, and ask us if there is anyone else we might like to meet. Make an email introduction, or even better, arrange a coffee break or lunch during which you can introduce us personally.

7. Be a mentee. Our experience as mentees has been the foundation for our own budding efforts as mentors. Everyone from the middle-school student to the most senior CEO can benefit from being both a mentor and a mentee. Continue investing in yourself and your own development.

Whether you’re a seasoned mentor with many mentees or a new mentor just starting to cultivate your first mentoring relationship, keeping in mind these points will help ensure that both you and your mentees grow and strengthen as a result of your mentorship.

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  • BY United Way of Stanislaus County

    ON June 3, 2013 11:38 AM

    Great post sharing the value of mentoring and how to be a good mentor.

    Do you think these principles relate to nonprofessional mentoring? An example would be mentoring with 7th graders or mentoring a student in 3rd grade.

    Would you say these principles are the same? If not, how do they change?


  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON June 4, 2013 07:50 AM

    This is good advise and if it is used by mentors as part of their learning as they go through the mentoring journey it will add to their ability to be a good mentor. 

    The question is: a) how many people will ever see this advise? b) how many young people will be reached by effective mentors? c) how many young people living in high poverty areas will be reached by effective mentors, who are supported by organizations that mentor the mentors?

    There is a “marketing” challenge in the mentoring field.  There is also a lack of good market research to support efforts that might make mentors available to young people in more places. 

    Here’s what I mean by that.  While all k-12 youth benefit from mentors, tutors and coaches in their lives, those in more affluent areas have natural mentors showing a wide range of life choices and career options and youth in high poverty areas have fewer adults who can model college, careers and support youth efforts to succeed in school and move to jobs beyond poverty.  Maps using census data and school performance data can show where poverty and poorly performing schools are concentrated. If someone is collecting the info, overlays can also show places where volunteer tutors and mentors are connecting with youth in these areas. That information could even be broken down by age group, showing availability of programs for each age group.  Using this information marketers and communicators could create on-going campaigns to draw operating support to existing programs and to help new programs grow in areas where too few programs now exist.

    If web libraries are created to share links to existing programs every program could be constantly benchmarking what they do against others, in an effort to constantly learn ways to improve. Volunteers could be using the same information to find resources that help them understand the challenges poverty presents along with ways they could help the youth the mentor, their fellow volunteers and the organization where they are involved. Companies that encourage employees to volunteer as mentors or tutors could encourage others to collect data like this or use their talent to help programs build effective web sites, while innovating ways to expand attention for programs throughout a city so more volunteers and donors would constantly be getting involved.

    These are strategies that the business and journalism schools at colleges and universities could adopt as a form of service learning. They are strategies that leaders in many sectors could support, meaning there would be more volunteers looking for ideas to help them be effective mentors, and more youth being reached by these mentors.

  • BY Rey Carr

    ON June 4, 2013 09:02 AM

    I like the way that your experience as mentoring partners (our word for “mentee”) helped to drive the creation of the other mentor habits. Thanks for providing these details about your experience.

    In the introduction you make mention of Homer’s work and make reference to it as the first mention of the mentoring relationship. There are other historical precedents that have not received the same attention. The other historical origins of mentoring as listed at http://www.mentors.ca/contestquestion.html

  • BY Lois J. Zachary

    ON June 4, 2013 10:22 AM

    Very nicely done. You’ve nailed the most common issues mentees face and provided concrete doable advice to mentors. We will be tweeting this for you. It is a must read.

  • BY BarbatoAurelio

    ON June 4, 2013 11:02 AM

    “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often”
    Winston Churchill

  • Antoine Musu's avatar

    BY Antoine Musu

    ON June 4, 2013 08:30 PM

    Well done to you both, and I will share this with colleagues.

  • Jennifer Przybylo & Nina Vasan's avatar

    BY Jennifer Przybylo & Nina Vasan

    ON June 6, 2013 10:26 AM

    Hi there,

        Thanks for all the thoughtful comments and kind words! As the authors of the article, we’re excited to see the great questions and remarks you’ve posted, and we’d like to take a moment to respond to some of them here:

    • To United Way of Stanislaus County – While we think that the majority of these principles hold for non-professional mentoring, there are a few caveats we would add when children are involved. Thank you for bringing up this excellent point. In particular, even the best-intentioned effort to foster community through outside get-togethers (Point 5) can be easily misconstrued when minors are involved. As always, caution should be exercised to ensure that children and their parents feel completely comfortable with any proposed activity or outing, and such events should always be held in a public location, with at least two or more adults present, if not the parents themselves. In some cases, outside get-togethers may simply not be appropriate. Consider the context of the mentoring relationship and use your best judgment.

          Additionally, asking for a professional courtesy or favor in return (Point 4) was written specifically with college/graduate students and professionals in mind – individuals generally in a position to act autonomously and refuse a request if they feel unable or unwilling to comply. Because special care should be taken to ensure undue influence is not applied to minors, we would in general not advise mentors to ask their young mentees for favors. Instead, this is an instance in which it is probably reward enough to know you’re making a real difference in a child’s life.

        Finally, the amount of balanced feedback (Point 3) that a child may be emotionally capable of receiving and intellectually internalizing is largely age-dependent, and will vary greatly from child-to-child, even within the same age group. This is not to say that children are incapable of receiving constructive criticism, as all teachers and coaches provide this type of feedback in one form or another, but it is important to tailor your advice and specific approach to the emotional maturity and specific personality of the child.

    • To Daniel Bassill – While we can only speak to our own mentoring experiences and what we found particularly effective in the context of those specific relationships, we definitely agree that mentoring is in general a huge benefit to society as a whole and that more efforts should be made to not only emphasize the importance of mentoring and the critical need for more mentors, but also to help pair those mentors with the students most in need of positive role models and influences. Some groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters do make every effort to do this, but there is always room for new ideas and technical innovations to improve this process and share best practices.

    • To Rey Carr – Thanks for the info on other historical contenders for the origin on the word “mentor” – a very interesting read! Much appreciated!

    Thanks again for all the wonderful comments and thoughts!

    Jennifer Przybylo & Nina Vasan

  • BY Taycor Financial

    ON June 12, 2013 10:56 AM

    This is great advice and something for education and business leaders to keep in mind. Nowadays the value of being a mentor gets lost and there tends to be a widened gap between employers and employees or teachers and students.

  • Kevin Brewster's avatar

    BY Kevin Brewster

    ON July 12, 2013 07:29 AM

    Well done and very timely, as one of my business goals is to mentor others within my organization.

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