Order Now

Over 40,000 Books Sold!

Negotiating the Challenges of Mentoring

Guest post by Chip R. Bell

The word “mentor” comes from The Odyssey, written by the Greek poet Homer. As Odysseus is preparing to go fight the Trojan War, he realizes he is leaving behind his only heir, Telemachus. Since “Telie” (as he was probably known to his buddies) is in junior high, and since wars tended to drag on for years, Odysseus recognizes that Telie needs to be coached on how to “king” while Daddy is off fighting. He hires a trusted family friend named Mentor to be Telie’s tutor. Mentor is both wise and sensitive—two important ingredients of world-class mentoring.

The history of the word “mentor” is instructive for several reasons. First, it underscores the legacy nature of mentoring. Like Odysseus, great leaders strive to leave behind a benefaction of added value. Second, Mentor (the old man) combined the wisdom of experience with the sensitivity of a fawn in his attempts to convey “kinging skills” to young Telemachus. We all know the challenge of conveying our hard-won wisdom to another without resistance. The successful mentor is able to circumvent protégé resistance.

Just like the first practitioner of their craft, mentors love learning, not teaching. They treasure sharing rather than showing off, giving rather than boasting. Great mentors are not only devoted fans of their protégés, they are loyal fans of the dream of what their protégés can become with their guidance.

Mentoring works most effectively when mentors approach their role with the recognition they are resolving four crucial challenges. How mentors negotiate these turbulent waters can determine if the mentoring relationship is smooth sailing or choppy navigation.  Helpful may be acting as a SAGE—Surrendering (rather than controlling), Accepting (to create a context of safety), Gifting (to unlock the insight needed for growth), and Extending (ensuring the transfer of learning to application and results).  Each of these four practices addresses one of the four challenges of mentoring.

Challenge #1:  Learning is a door opened only from the inside

Mentors must find ways to be invited in by the protégé.  The “authority” feature of all mentors (“I have a competence you don’t have”) means mentors must level the learning field. Surrendering to the process of learning means avoiding the temptation to control and direct the relationship. Think of it as joining and nurturing a partnership—two people jointly seeking an opportunity to explore.  Protégés are more apt to trust if the learning experience is reciprocal, not dependent. It starts with rapport—the creation of an early kinship connection.  Any normal person approaching a potentially anxious encounter will raise her or his antennae high in search of clues that would give an early warning regarding the road ahead. Given this pioneering search for signals by the protégé, it is crucial the mentor be quick to transmit responses of authenticity and sincerity.

Challenge #2:  Learning means taking risks in front of another

Learning online provides the privacy to make stupid mistakes and silly errors.  But, mentoring happens under the watchful eye and ear of a mentor.  Since learning cannot effectively occur without risk-taking, it requires mentors create an atmosphere of acceptance and safety.  From a non-judgmental manner to a style of obvious curiosity, mentors must be perpetual guardians of security.  Protégés feel the relationship is safe when mentors demonstrate receptivity and validation of their feelings. The goal is empathetic identification.  The “I am the same as you” gesture promotes an affiliation vital to trust.  Mildly self-deprecating anecdotes can be particularly solid boons to acceptance.  If you feel awkward, say you do.  If you feel excited, say so.  Taking interpersonal risks in front of the protégé invites them on the high wire of risk-taking, a necessary stance on the path to mastery.

Challenge #3:  Learning is about insight and understanding, not information

Sustainable learning involves all manner of chemical changes inside the brain that only happen through fostering discovery.  It is not opening protégés heads to pour in information.  Great mentors give their learning gifts through facilitation, not instruction. Thought-provoking questions must trump smart statements. Mentors use insight-producing learning gifts such as an enlightening story, an obvious affirmation, helpful feedback, and sincere encouragement.  But a crucial learning gift is advice.   Ask permission to give advice. State your advice in the first person singular.  Phrases like “you ought to” can quickly raise listener resistance!  Your goal is to communicate advice without surfacing resistance while keeping ownership of the challenge with your protégé.

Challenge #4:  Great mentoring is measured by the transfer of learning.

In the end, learning must lead to performance and results.  Most organizations cannot afford learning solely for learning’s sake.  Mentors must help protégés link what they learn to job application.  It requires support beyond the mentoring relationship and transforming a cautious novice into a self-directed and joyful learner.  It includes providing tools and resources for continual improvement.  And, it means follow-up with the protégé to provide support, encouragement and renewal.  Your goal as a mentor is to extend the learning beyond your relationship with your protégé.

In golf there is the expression “playing over your head.” It means that a golfer is playing at an unexplained level of excellence in which serendipity and the extraordinary seem the momentary norm.  Effective mentoring is a relationship of a mentor and protégé who seek to honor their alliance by “learning over their heads.”


chip bell headshotChip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and author of several national and international best-selling books including Managers as Mentors:  Building Partnerships for Learning (co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith).   He can be reached at www.chipbell.com.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.