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Heather Townsend

The Excedia Group


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Mentoring 101: Seven top tips to become the best mentor you can be


Regular community contributor Heather Townsend turns her hand to the field of mentoring to offer TZ members more great advice.
As a learning and development professional, it's not uncommon to be asked to mentor more junior people within your business. Very often in your role as a coach, you are expected to mentor/coach staff after they have attended a development or assessment centre. Whether or not this is an optional role for you, it can impose considerable time demands on you, the mentor. Before you say 'yes' to the request to be a mentor, read our tips for mentors to make sure that both you and the mentee benefit from your relationship.

Know what you are signing up for

Becoming a mentor carries with it expectations – and if you have a formal mentoring scheme within your firm – formal processes and systems which you will need to follow. Before you say yes to your prospective mentee, contract with them to find out the following:
  • What are their expectations for you and the relationship?
  • What exact help or guidance do they want from you – and can you deliver this?
  • How much time do they want or need from you?
  • What role do they want you to play as a mentor? E.g. role model, sounding board, door opener, introducer, facilitator, coach, career counselor?
After you have 'contracted' with your mentee, get them to write this down and formalise the boundaries and aims of your relationship. You can refer back to this contract throughout your relationship. Do re-contract every 6-12 months to make sure that both sides are still getting what they want out of the relationship.

Walk your walk and talk your talk

To be an effective mentor you need to be an inspiring role model to your mentees. This means that you need to be true to your own values, authentic in your dealings with others, and be someone they can look up to. I.e. 'walk your walk and talk your talk'. Your role as a mentor is very often critical to whether your mentees decide to make a career at your firm.

Do you have the time?

As we have already mentioned, being a mentor takes time. Time, which is normally accounted for as 'non-chargeable' time. Before you say yes, do you honestly have the capacity to give the time that your mentee wants from the relationship? It's better to be honest now, or if things change for you, than commit to a relationship where you cannot keep your side of the bargain.

Listen more than talk

Although your mentee has chosen you because they want to benefit from your skills, experience and influence – you still need to listen more than you talk. Being blunt, if the relationship is going to work effectively, it's more about them than about you. Sorry. Take your time to listen to what they want, what they are really telling you, before jumping in and trying to solve their problems for them. One of the best things you can do for your mentee is be a sounding board and take the time to listen to them – you may be the only person in the firm that they feel they can properly open up to.

Treat your mentee with the same priority as a client

Developing talent within your firm is vital to your firm's future success. You know that, and I know that. However, when the chips are down, it's tempting to cancel all non-client related activities – even the meeting with your mentee. I beg to differ. Cancelling this meeting sends out the signal that you are not interested in them or their career – or committed to developing talent in your firm. If you are truly committed to this relationship, then you will make the time to meet them and keep your side of the bargain. It may need to be a shorter meeting, and after over a drink after work – but still have that meeting. If you have a temporary capacity issue, then be honest with your mentee – and scale back your relationship until you can properly spend the time with them again.

Be honest with your mentee

Part of the role of a mentor is to be a critical friend. With the benefit of your experience and often a hard-won tee-shirt to prove it, you can often spot problems before your mentee. Don't shy away from being a mirror and providing tough but supportive feedback. It's better that you help your mentee correct their faults before these faults derail your mentee's career.

Champion your mentee

Part of your role is to informally and formally champion your mentee. After all your senior status gives you access to many more areas than your mentee. Be their eyes and ears at the top table, without breaking confidences, and where there is an opportunity, speak up for your mentee. Your backing may be the difference between them getting the opportunity to go for partnership or being asked to leave the firm. When Jo (my co-author) and I interviewed partners for our book, 'How to make partner and still have a life', we found that every partner pointed to someone who has acted either in an official or unofficial capacity, as a champion and mentor, to help them achieve their career ambitions.


Becoming someone's mentor can be a very personally rewarding experience – but will require time and effort from you. You owe it to your mentee to be the very best mentor they could want or wish for.
Heather Townsend is the co-author of 'How to make partner and still have a life', published in November 2012 by Kogan Page. Extracts from this book have been used to write this article. To find out more about 'How to make partner and still have a life', please visit the How to make partner and still have a life website

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Heather Townsend


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