Be a Real Mentor

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Chip Bell. Chip is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book (with Marshall Goldsmith) is Managers as Mentors:  Building Relationships that Last. He can be reached through]

The very first use of the word “mentor” comes from Greek poet Homer’s classic book The Odyssey.   As Odysseus is preparing to go off to fight the Trojan War he realizes he would be leaving behind his only heir, Telemachus. Since “Telie” (as he was probably known to his buddies) was only in junior high and since wars tended to drag on for years (the Trojan War lasted ten), Odysseus recognized that Telie needs to be coached in kinging skills while Daddy was off fighting.  Odysseus hired a trusted family friend named Mentor to be Telie’s tutor. Mentor, the man, was 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 feature 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 “how-to-be-a-king”  skills to young Telemachus. We all know the challenge of conveying our hard-won wisdom to another without resistance. The successful mentor creates a learning partnership with the protégé in a quest to circumvent predictable resistance.
Homer characterizes Mentor as a family friend. The symbolism contained in this relationship is apropos to contemporary mentors. Effective mentors are like friends in that their goal is to create a safe context for growth—a relationship for risk-taking and experimentation. They are also like family in that their focus is to offer unconditional, faithful acceptance of the protégé. Friends work to add and multiply, not to subtract. Family members care, even in the face of mistakes and errors. All these are vital stats for great mentors.

Superior mentors know how adults learn. Operating out of their intuition or on what they have learned in other way, the best mentors recognize that they are, first and foremost, facilitators and catalysts in a process of discovery and insight. That means they seek to make the “aha” light come on in the mind of the protégé.  Since learning is a door only opened from the inside by the protégé, they know that mentoring must not be about smart comments, eloquent lectures, or clever quips. Effective mentors practice their skills with a combination of never-ending compassion, crystal-clear communication, and a sincere joy in the role of being a helper along a journey toward mastery.

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 wise, yet sensitive guidance.