Defining the ideal mentor

Prescriptions for developing more women


Readers who remember my January 11 and April 4 columns will recall that I emphasized the important role mentoring plays in career development programming for women. Many, many women have never had the opportunity to be mentored.

Some of you might be wondering, “Just what is a ‘mentor,’ anyway?”

A mentor is a trusted guide who invests in the development of another person. In business, a mentor is typically a seasoned expert who is willing to guide, nurture and invest in the growth and development of a less seasoned colleague, a mentee.

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Mentoring is a foundational leadership role associated with the Interpersonal or Human Relations domain of leadership (Technical/Subject and Strategic are the other major leadership domains). Interpersonal/Human Relations competencies relate to the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to coordinate and facilitate the work of others. Team building, performance coaching, conflict resolution, etc. are important tools that create a work environment of peak performance and maximum motivation and job satisfaction.

Specifically with regard to the mentor role, three skills are foundational: Understanding self and others; communicating effectively; and developing employees. Let’s explore each of these skills in more detail.

Understanding self and others

Trust and authenticity are typically among the highest rated factors when employees are surveyed regarding the characteristics they seek in their leaders. To be an effective mentor, self-awareness is foundational. In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Polonius, the counselor to the king, observes, “To thine own self be true.” This is a very eloquent way of saying, “Don’t play games with yourself; don’t kid yourself.” Leaders and mentors who are true to themselves are accurate self-assessors. They know where they excel and where they struggle. They work hard to make greater use of their strengths while simultaneously trying to make their weaknesses irrelevant.

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Communicating effectively

Communicating effectively as a mentor is more than being an eloquent discussant when sharing one’s experience, insights and observations. Being an effective mentor means being an effective listener and an effective provider of feedback. Effective listening means active listening, or listening for meaning and understanding. Effective feedback provision involves delivering messages that are receiver/mentee-centered, that reflect understanding and offer relevant and learning-oriented insights and impressions. Effective feedback is guided by the 5:1 “magic ratio” (five positives for every one corrective message).

Developing employees

This skill area is where the rubber meets the road regarding effective mentoring. To do well here, mentors need to be strong assessors. They need to make accurate observations regarding their mentees’ strengths and developmental areas. Mentors need to be strong sources of information for their mentees (point them to resources to be used for development). Mentors need to be effective referral agents on behalf of their mentees (operating as door opener to others inside or outside the organization who can be of assistance to the mentee). Ultimately, they need to be strong evaluators of the progress of their mentees (affirming gains that have been made and identifying those that warrant ongoing attention).

I hope you are beginning to understand that operating as an effective mentor does not “just happen.” Mentoring is more than simply serving as the nominal sponsor of an inexperienced employee and getting together over coffee every so often to see how things are going. Mentoring, done well, is a complex role that draws upon a variety of skills and techniques, the rudiments of which I touched upon above.

Is your organization willing to a make a commitment to developing a focused program of career development for women, the group of employees that is forecasted to be the majority of new entrants to the workforce over the next decade? If so, then your organization will want to make a focused commitment to building a mentor development program targeting the skills explored in this column, so effective mentors are aligned with emerging mentees.

-Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. ( He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or

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