Shaping Young Minds: The Art of Mentoring

how to be a better mentor to staff

8 Tips For Becoming a Great Mentor To Your Staff

Last week I met with a new staffer on my team, who joined the firm just a couple of months ago.  He was eager and prepared, bringing a number of questions to the meeting; it was a very productive conversation overall.  While we did talk about his specific tasks, much of the dialog strayed into educating the new employee and explaining how his work would benefit our company.

“Wow” he said. “That makes complete sense, I didn’t see it that way before.”

The new hire left the conference room at the end of the hour while I packed up my things. A fellow manager who also happened to be in the meeting pulled me aside.

“Doing what you do best” she smiled. “Shaping young minds.”

We chuckled as we often do at our inside joke, because we both had experience working with managers who were bad mentors. But her remark got me thinking. Why do so many leaders struggle to be effective mentors?  Why does it seem so hard for us to counsel and coach our employees? Many managers simply focus on tasks and due dates. Sure, this is a critical part of the job, but there is a lot more that goes in to being a great manager than just tasks.  And going one step further to become a trusted mentor does not have to be hard. With that, here are 8 tips that can put you well on your way to becoming a better mentor to your employees.


1. Ask Thought-Provoking Questions

Whether you’re simply trying to understand what your employee is working on, or attempting to dig in and evaluate their work, being inquisitive is a great mentoring technique. As busy managers, we often want to give a quick answer or redirect an employee down and different path, and then simply move on with our own work. However, it’s important to point out that simply giving feedback is not the same as being a mentor. When you ask questions with substance it forces the employee to think through and explain their thought process, bettering their communication skills. Further, a handful of difficult questions from the boss keeps them on their feet and encourages them to always think critically about their own work.

Examples of Questions You Can Ask:


  • “What other options did you consider?”
  • “Can you explain your thought process behind that?”
  • “How do you think you’ll go about approaching this?”
  • “What’s your fall back plan?”
  • “What are the possible outcomes?”

What It Teaches: Communication Skills, Critical Thinking, The Importance of Preparation

RELATED: Coaching Through Questions


2.  Challenge Their Ideas, Tactfully

Nothing will put a young, talented individual who is eager to tackle the world’s biggest problems into place like being challenged by someone who truly does know better.  There are definitely times when you need to calibrate a junior staffer’s expectations, or at least help them realize they need to be more careful, thorough and patient. To outright tell them they’re wrong, or to belittle them for their inexperience will never help them grow, nor is it motivating. What is helpful, though, is giving them enough constructive criticism and a few gentle pointers such that they go back and think a little more about their approach before continuing. Additionally, getting pushback from their supervisor is going to teach them how to handle a little pressure from colleagues who outrank them (something many new employees struggle with).

Examples Of What To Say:


  • “You should probably look into that further.”
  • “Take a look at [X]. I think you missed something there.”
  • “Are you sure you have identified all of the risks?”

What It Teaches: Decision Quality, Thoroughness, How to Handle Pressure


3.  Tell a Story

Today’s young workforce is very interested in learning and growing fast.  And while they may act like they know everything, recognize that they’re usually listening to you very carefully. Stories are great educators. When your employee is facing a particular challenge, draw upon your own experience in such a way that you share a story of how you overcame a similar problem. A simple 5-minute recollection about an approach you took in the past can often give them a number of ideas and things they can consider. Storytime teaches an employee two specific things: first, that experience is valuable. And second, that they need to ask for help when stuck.

What It Teaches: The Need to Ask for Help, Building a Network of Resources

“It’s better to have a team full of people willing to take chances than it is to have one full of individuals paralyzed by inaction.”


4.  Make Yourself Accessible

For young contributors, it’s easy to be intimidated the Directors, VPs, and other members of your organization with big titles.  As a senior member of your organization, you know more and have seen it all…. not to mention you’re generally really busy.  But if you want to become a great mentor to your junior staff, you need to make yourself accessible, even if you don’t have time.  You can’t mentor if you never see or talk to your staff.  Make yourself available when needed, even if you ask them to join you for 30 minutes while you run out to get lunch, or stay past 5PM for a short mentoring discussion. Be sure to say it in literal words “If you have any questions, feel free to come by and we can talk about it.” Such a simple statement can go a long way in making your employees feel comfortable approaching you.

What It Teaches: They Should Seek Help When Needed, Their Issues Are Important, They Are Worth Your Time

RELATED: 8 Great Coaching Conversations With Your Staff

 “Simply giving feedback is not the same as being a mentor.”


5.  Yes, You Need to Lead By Example

We hear this phrase all the time but we often don’t abide by it. But the fact of the matter is, your new hires and junior staff are quite impressionable. They watch you closely. Whether it’s seeing you keep your frustration in check on the most frustrating of days, or seeing how you interact with other employees, how you treat virtues like honesty, respect, patience and transparency will be very impactful upon your team. Your own personal conduct will often set the tone for how your employees conduct themselves.

What It Teaches: Professionalism, Integrity, Respect


6.  Give Them a Sense of Purpose

Few things give our new, budding talent more drive than a sense of purpose.  By this, we mean doing what many managers do not: taking the time to explain how and why the task at hand contributes to the larger organization and adds value to the team. Our young staff wants to add value.  They want to contribute.  And they want to be part of the team.  But more than any of this, they want to be meaningful.  Need proof?  Look in the mirror. Early on in your career, you wanted your work to be impactful, just like the fresh hires of today.

What It Teaches: The Importance of Vision, Quality of Work Is Important, The Concept of Teamwork


7.  Let Them Make Mistakes… Intentionally

Learning from our own mistakes is perhaps the best form of learning, far more than any training class can ever be because we remember the experience. So while you may already know the answers, often times, we need to let our employees stumble in order to help them grow the hard way. From a mentoring perspective, your duty is to be there after they make mistakes and to help them learn from them. And don’t forget to remind them that making mistakes is acceptable. It’s better to have a team full of people willing to take chances than it is to have one full of individuals paralyzed by inaction.

What It Teaches: Taking Chances is Acceptable, There Are Consequences to Every Decision, It Is Okay to Make Mistakes

RELATED: Why Making Employees Fail Makes You A Better Manager


8.  Guide, Don’t Decide

There are absolutely times when you need to take charge, direct and make the important decisions. But when it comes to running a nurturing organization, this should not be the norm. Being more experienced, you often know how you would approach a given situation, or challenge, and it’s easy for us to just wave employees off with a quick decision. But if you really want to become an effective mentor, you need to get comfortable letting go of the reigns. Provide guidance, input, and advice. But to the greatest extent possible, let your junior employees make the decisions in non-critical situations. Why? Two reasons: first, it forces the employee to actually make decisions, which can be difficult for fresh hires; and second, it reinforces to them that they have the authority to do what they feel is right when the boss it not around.

What It Teaches: Decision Making, Critical Thinking


It doesn’t take much to become an effective mentor, and it starts by taking a single step beyond focusing on the immediate tasks at hand. Using all of your own experience and wisdom, find ways to help them grow and learn, because this will only help your team increase its own abilities. One final point: word gets out. Talented workers want to be around the best mentors in the office. So the better and more influential you can become as a mentor will mean you can recruit and maintain the best talent within your organization.


Looking for More on Mentoring and Coaching?  You Might Like…

Real Bad Boss Quotes.  Things to Never Say to Your Employees

How to Manage Your Poor Performers

How to Develop Your Staff




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