Last Updated: Feb 12, 2015
Helping employees under you reach their potential is an important part of your job as a manager. The best way to do that is by mentoring them. In this excerpt from 9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Mentors, learn about the basics of mentoring.

9 Powerful Practices of Really Great MentorsWhen you choose to become a support-providing helper to another person—as a mentor is—you will need to develop and apply skills that are so common to effective teachers, advisors, or those who guide others professionally that these skills are almost like second nature. Whether you are a coach to a player, therapist to a clientpatient, manager to a direct report, trade master to an apprentice, or in a mentoring role to a protégé, you will perform your role with more success if you demonstrate a set of “people” or “soft” skills that typify those with the capability to nurture an other-oriented, growth-focused relationship.

Many of the core attributes of an effective mentor are captured in the concepts that define one’s emotional intelligence. Whereas the best mentors tend to be smart about the more technical elements and nuances of whatever it is that they do for a living, they also must show a different kind of intelligence: They need to be smart about what motivates others in a forward-aiming direction. They must have emotional radar that senses what their protégé is feeling, and what they too are feeling during the guidance process. To be an effective mentor, your EQ (level of emotional intelligence) needs to be at least as high as—if not higher than—your IQ (more academic or conceptual understanding–based smarts).

A wide range of research and literature exists about what motivates individuals to improve, learn more, and achieve more, and how to facilitate this process as an external resource. This is the fundamental context in which mentoring takes place. Certainly, a review of all this literature is well beyond the scope of this book. Much of it, in fact, is of very little assistance to someone interested in developing skills as a mentor. But we have chosen three principles of facilitating self-learning that are fundamental to implementing the helping role effectively:

1. Self-Actualization

Many of you may have studied behavioral sciences during your formal education, and if you did it is almost certain that you were exposed to the work of Abraham Maslow, who introduced a “Hierarchy of Needs” theory in the mid-20th century that still resonates today. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has helped reframe approaches to the management role, steering leaders away from a financially or threats-based motivational frameworks of leadership and toward a model that assumes that people work in order to gain personal fulfillment. Maslow’s model postulated that what people really want out of life, once they are not in a varying degree of “pure survival mode,” is self-actualization; that is, incremental growth toward attainment of the individual’s highest needs—those related to the meaning in life, in particular.

The context of self-actualization in mentoring rarely takes on the overarching topic of the meaning of life; more often, mentoring addresses the real-life issues of fulfillment in one’s work life, such as, “What is the meaning of what I do professionally?” Or “What impacts does my work have, on both those around me and the environment in which I practice, and how can I make these impacts better for all concerned?” or “What outcomes would make me feel most fulfilled in my work life?” In addressing these questions, the mentor and protégé discuss issues with a profound bearing on the focus of the protégé’s future efforts, driven by an understanding of what the protégé’s real objectives are in actualizing a meaningful professional career.

RELATED: Use Mentoring to Attract and Retain the Best Employees

2. Self-Awareness-Building

A leading management coach, John Whitmore, wrote that “what I am aware of empowers me, and what I am unaware of controls me.” For mentors, this statement has profound meaning in a wide variety of ways. When the mentor-protégé relationship uncovers a more evidence-based understanding of the protégé’s strengths and weaknesses, development plans can be devised to leverage protégés’ strengths and mitigate the impact of their weaknesses—or somehow find a way to improve on the weaknesses until they are not considered weaknesses any longer. But it takes courage and emotional will to explore one’s strengths and challenges. Mentors must engender an ongoing and open exploration of the protégé’s self-awareness, within the context that Whitmore advocates: personal and professional empowerment through increased self-knowledge, and the uncovering of blind spots that can diminish professional effectiveness.

Emotional self-awareness is of particular importance. Mentors need to be aware of their protégés’ and their own emotional “temperature” during mentoring interactions and throughout the tenure of the relationship. Emotional self-awareness is, in essence, knowing what you are feeling and why, as well as what others appear to be feeling, and why. If, for example, a mentor is aware of a feeling of personal frustration about an issue or interaction with a mentee, it is important to at least understand that emotion and why the feeling is evident at that particular point in time. What you do about this understanding can vary, from sharing it with the protégé (rarely a bad , since it is part of the reality of the moment, and enhances mutual awareness within the relationship) to causing additional discussions of alternatives because the one being enacted is creating frustration.

Similarly, effective mentors gauge emotional reactions from protégés to certain stimuli, such as a prodding question or discussion of a prior troublesome event. Mentors need to be comfortable reflecting the feelings of their protégés and owning up to their own while mentoring is underway.

RELATED: How to Create an Effective Mentoring Program

3. Becoming More Naturally Empathic

One of Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This advice needs to become the mentor’s mantra. The mentor role is typified by significant efforts to understand the protégé as a person and a professional far before lending any guidance or advice. Mentoring without seeking first to understand is not mentoring at all; it is facile advice-giving without context.

One mentor we know keeps Covey’s “seek first to understand, then to be understood” habit of highly successful people as a placard on his desk, so that when protégés are prone to ask, “So what do you think I should do?” he is able to point to the placard and reply, “I don’t think I know enough about what is going on yet. Let’s try to understand it all better.” Then he asks an open-ended probing question to elicit more information. This is the type of basic empathic behavior that facilitates mentoring, and yields more success in the relationship with a protégé.

Indeed, seeking first to understand before needing to be understood is a proxy for developing the skill of empathy. In 9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Bosses, a book we recently wrote to improve the people skills of managers, we defined empathy as “the capacity to understand and respond effectively to the unique experience of another.” Sounds applicable to the mentoring role, doesn’t it? But how does one become more naturally empathic, in order to build a base from which they can serve more effectively in the role of helper?

The following techniques all apply to those seeking to become useful to a protégé while serving in the role of mentor:


A set of three core skills—supporting self-actualization, self-awareness-building, and becoming more naturally empathic—serve as the underlying basis for implementing the nine mentoring techniques we will discuss later in the book. Without integrating, developing, and applying these skills to our model, you will not be able to achieve the level of success you no doubt were hoping to realize when you decided to learn more about effective mentoring techniques. To re-emphasize the important themes we have raised in this chapter, we advocate that:

Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent O’Connell

Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from 9 POWERFUL PRACTICES OF REALLY GREAT MENTORS © 2015 Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent O’Connell. Published by Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.


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