5 Keys to Being a Good Mentor

Mentoring someone is a great way to help them—and the organization—succeed.

Sondra Levitt

Career Coach, Korn Ferry Advance

Mentoring doesn’t get a lot of attention at many firms, but experts say it has some unexpected key benefits. According to a CNBC survey, for example, workers at practically every level (individual contributor, manager, senior manager, and vice president) are significantly less likely to consider quitting if they have a mentor.

A mentor is a trusted person who can give advice and confidentially discuss both work topics and personal topics. And developing a mentorship relationship is a choice on both sides. “Mentors can help more junior people navigate the complex culture of the workplace, including institutional knowledge, organizational dynamics and politics, and potential land mines,” says Sondra Levitt, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. 

But establishing these relationships isn’t always easy; unless there’s a formalized program, mentors have to wait for mentees to seek them out for advice.

Below, our tips for being a good mentor. 

Establish expectations for the relationship.

Potential mentors should assess their motivation for wanting to mentor this particular person as well as their availability to do so. Ask yourself: Do you see potential in this person? Will a mentorship be productive for them, for you, and for the team?

Once you’re prepared to mentor someone who is seeking your advice, career experts say to clarify with them that you are their mentor and make a commitment to schedule time with them.

"Cover their goals (what does the mentee hope to get out of the relationship?), mutual expectations (what does each party expect from the other to get the most from the experience?), and logistics (how often to meet, for how long, the best methods of contact, whether meeting agendas are required, and so forth),” says Tiffinee Swanson, a career coach and senior consultant at Korn Ferry Advance. 

Be both a mentor and a sponsor.

Mentorship and sponsorship aren’t the same thing. Sponsorship is related to mentorship, but it involves advocating for the other person. A sponsorship can help someone from a group that’s underrepresented in leadership ascend the ladder. 

“To turn your mentorship into a sponsorship, advocate for your mentee even when they’re not in the room. Put their name forward for high-stakes assignments, and then mentor them throughout the experience so they can successfully navigate it,” Swanson says.

Help them achieve their goals.

On the one hand, the mentee should drive the relationship and come to you with items to discuss. On the other, mentees often don’t know what they don’t know. You can proactively bring up important things that have helped you get to where you are, whether they’re related to time management, work-life balance, career strategy, networking, development plans, résumé, leadership skills, technical skills, barriers to growth, or anything else. 

The optimal time to give advice as a mentor is when the mentee brings an issue to you. “The caveat is if you see your mentee doing something that is actively positive—or negative—for their career,” Levitt says. Even then, it’s best to ask permission to offer your advice or feedback. It can be helpful to frame advice in terms of your own experience, sharing what you’ve done in the past that has worked, or missteps you’ve made that you can help your mentee avoid. A big part of mentorship is helping the mentee shorten their learning curve and grow faster. 

Be generous.

“If you’re going to be a mentor, realize that as your mentee grows and succeeds, there’s a possibility that they may achieve as much as you have—or even more,” Levitt says. Maintain a mindset of abundance and be confident in sharing information, opening up your network, and raising your mentee’s visibility so that there’s enough room for everyone to be successful.

Another way to be generous is by releasing the individual from the obligation to heed your advice. “Freely offer advice without attachment to the result,” Swanson says. If the mentee habitually doesn't take your advice, you can share this observation and ask about the effectiveness of the relationship so that neither of you waste your time.

Encourage your mentee to build a “board of directors.”

Everyone should have a personal ‘board of directors’ in their career composed of (for example) a mentor, a manager, a sponsor, a coach, and any other people who might be helpful. These people support us, challenge us, and tell us the truth. For a mentee, there’s some overlap to these roles, but it’s also good to have a variety of perspectives. For example, your mentee shouldn’t necessarily be your direct report. 

Encourage your mentee to seek out some coaching—where they’ll be asked, and have to answer, powerful questions—and help them understand what their boss’s role can be, too. 


For more information, contact Korn Ferry Advance.