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Mentorship: how to's

Sold on the value of mentoring relationships but not sure how to go about it? Read on...

Requirements to be a mentor

1. You possess knowledge and experienceYou are more advanced than the protégé.


2. You are willing to share. You are sitting on the valuable assets of your knowledge and experience and are willing to invest them into the open ears of another in the hope of a good return, understanding that you may never personally reap any of the benefits of this good return, yourself, other than the satisfaction of knowing you paid it forward. 


3. You have the time necessary to guide a protégé. It takes time to cultivate a healthy mentoring relationship. Many people volunteer to invest in a protégé because it's hard to deny the potential value, but they don't really have the space in their schedule. I've had several young people in my programs disappointed because they repeatedly got "bumped" for something more important. So don't agree to mentor someone if it's an over-commitment.


4. You can actively listenWhile the point is for you to guide a protege, a huge part of this process is listening...really listening.


5. You have the ability to identify goals appropriate for othersYou can identify safe risks to steer them toward, and you don't force a personal agenda.


Some organizations have mentoring programs for the purpose of  succession planning and training. There is an agenda in a program like this. But the agenda you craft for your protege should be about that protege's personal best, not your own. Ideally the protege's personal best aligns with the company's needs/goals and your own, but selfless mentoring puts the priority on the protege.

I've had mentors sign up for my mentoring programs to satisfy a service requirement for their own positions and their heart wasn't really in the relationship. I personally prefer only to have professionals in my program who have a genuine desire to be good for another, which leads me to #6 and #7.


6. You genuinely care

7. You have a strong desire to help another.

That’s it. If you’ve got what it takes to mentor, do it. The world needs you, and young people are starved for your wisdom.

Requirements to be a protégé

When mentors choose protégés they typically look for 3 things:

1. A good performance record. There is a parable that says, in essence: "He who has been faithful with a little, will be faithful with a lot.” If I make an investment of my time and energy in you, I want to believe that I will get a good return. I need to trust you. I need to have faith in you. You earn my trust through your track record…your behavior…your reputation and habits. These things are intertwined.

Your past behavior is the best indicator of your future behavior. This is the reason recruiters ask behavioral questions in interviews, and why you should seek to build a favorable reputation.

2. A promising skill set and a genuine appetite If your heart is right, you usually have a good performance record. But maybe you’re new to the industry and don’t feel like you have a performance record, or maybe you have a poor one you’re trying to overcome.

Potential mentors need to see promise in you. Mentoring is an investment. People with greater experience and achievements than your own have earned them, many times the hard way. They don’t have a big surplus of time and energy to waste.

If you approach someone to ask for a formal mentoring relationship, give that person good reasons to invest in you. Convince them you are worth their valuable time--that you have a promising skill set, a genuine hunger to learn, and that you will be faithful with what they offer you.

This is not to imply that mentors are selfish. In my experience they are incredibly unselfish! But smart people don’t waste their time. I recommend that you take a pen and notebook to every meeting with your mentor. It's even a good idea to email questions ahead of time. Say, "Here's what I'm hoping we can discuss tomorrow." If you give them a head's up on how they can help you, you may get better information.

You don’t have to be brilliant. They know you wouldn’t need them if you had already reached the expert level. But you need to have a genuinely promising skill set and attitude, and you need to highly respect their time by coming to each meeting prepared and ready to learn.

3. Commitment and loyalty. If someone believes in you, do everything within your power not to betray that sacred trust.

Being committed to a mentoring relationship means you are faithful in keeping appointments. You make the relationship a priority. You protect confidentialities. You consider your mentor’s reputation in addition to your own.

It’s a great idea to establish basic ground rules at the front end of a formal mentoring relationship so you have a clear understanding of what your mentor expects from you. This will eliminate most awkward situations where you disappoint because you didn’t know what was expected, or conversely, that they disappoint you because they didn't know what you expected.

How to begin a mentoring relationship

Either party can make the first move--the mentor or the protégé can invite the other into the relationship.


If the mentor extends the invitation, they likely see promise in you and believe they could help you further develop. If the protégé extends the relationship, it's likely because they admire your character and/or skillset and would like the opportunity to learn from your wisdom. 

The steps below outline how either a protégé or mentor can approach establishing a mentoring relationship.

1. Set personal goals. What do you want out of a mentoring relationship?

If you want to serve as a mentor, why is that? What are your strengths? What can you offer someone? Have a clearly defined list.

If you want to be mentored, why is that? What are your deficiencies? What are your goals? Have a clearly defined list.

Keep this list simple. Start with only 1-2 goals. Once those are reached, set 1-2 new goals.

2. Cast your net. Consider who you know and what you're looking for, and cast around to see who your possibilities are.

Don't rule out people you already know. Once you've defined your goals, you may realize you already know ideal candidates for mentoring. These are actually your strongest candidates because they know you. Even if they only know you marginally, that's not the same as a total stranger approaching them.

Don't rule out strangers, either. Go to people you already know and respect and say,


"Here's my goal. Here's what I'm looking for. Do you know anyone who fits that description?"


This will lead you to new possibilities. If you do this, ask for an introduction. This is stronger than simply approaching a stranger out of the blue and asking them to make a time investment in you. I mean, why should they? It's a little awkward. Some folks would admire your boldness, but people at a high level get frequent demands on their time. They can't feasibly say yes to all requests. A strong recommendation from someone gives you a better shot.

If you are looking for a protégé, chances are you'll find a good candidate in your own organization or through networking. Don't be afraid to ask trusted associates if there is someone they know seeking guidance, then invite your associate and this guidance-seeker to coffee for an initial introduction.

3. Consider what you can offer. If you really want to approach this process in an effective way, reverse your thinking. Don't think..."I want a mentor because it will help my career." Instead, think..."I wonder what that professional's biggest challenge is, and whether I could help alleviate it."


Most respected people in the workplace have more work than they can handle. If you want to get someone's attention, offer to help them.

I tell students in my business communication classes, the secret to getting the job you want is to think like the person hiring you. What are their challenges? And how can you solve them? You do this for others, and they will seek to return the favor.

4. Ask. Make the pitch. Ask with purpose and forethought. Write it out if it helps. Practice if it helps. But approach someone and ask.


"I'm looking for someone who wants a professional mentor. You were recommended to me. Here's what I can offer. Does this interest you?"




"I'm looking for a professional mentor. You were recommended to me. Because I don't want this to feel like a one-sided relationship, let me share with you what I feel I can offer to the relationship, and let me share what I'm seeking from it. Does this interest you?"

5. Set the parameters. 


Set a regular time to meet, with both parties respecting the start and finish times. Ideally, you should meet face-to-face 2-4 times a month. I have no scientific evidence for this, just my own observations in relationship-building. Get these meetings on both your calendars. Share contact information. And if you see an unavoidable conflict coming, get word to your mentor/protégé ASAP out of respect for his/her schedule.

Clearly lay out the goals at the first or second meeting. Both parties.

Clearly articulate strengths and weaknesses at the first or second meeting. Both parties. Then seek ways to continually learn from the other's strengths, and teach into the other's weaknesses. Protect and hold confidential those weaknesses.

Set an expiration date. One of the biggest mistakes made in mentoring relationships is not setting an end date.

Schedules get busier, goals change without being discussed, and the regular meetings get less and less regular. The relationship fizzles. If you'll set an end date on day one, it helps.

At the first meeting, say,


"Let's meet regularly for the next 3-6 months, then let's re-evaluate. We'll see where we are on the goals and whether we're effectively helping one another, then we can decide what our next step is."

You should also articulate enough of your values, personality, work style, and expectations in the early meetings to help the other person know how to respond to you.


If you're the mentor and you say, "Send me your resume," and you know that you mean "today," then say that. Say, "Responsiveness is important to me, and here's how I define responsiveness."


There is a communication gap to overcome when differing generations work together. For more on this, see Age | Gender | Ethnicity.

Additional Resources

The elements of mentoring by Brad Johnson & Charles Ridley. This academic mentoring pair has done their homework. They cover just about every issue/question that might arise in the study and practice of mentoring. This is the book we use as a foundational text in my course.

Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, includes a chapter on mentorship. It is excellent. There is also a Lean In website.


Best practices: Mentoring (US Office of Personnel Management)

He never gave his last lecture (Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Give & Take)

Additional mentorship Content



Age | Gender | Ethnicity

Lessons Learned

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