Help Others Help Themselves: A Quick Guide to Mentorship


I have been a teacher on and off during my career.  I’m currently “on” again, teaching an entrepreneurship course for undergraduates at a local university.  Business courses tend to focus on team project work because that’s how businesses are run: a group of people working together to achieve a common goal.

Inevitably, whenever I teach a course that involves teamwork, at least one student hits me up mid-semester with a complaint about a teammate.  Usually it is an expectation issue where one student hasn’t contributed as much to the project as other students would like.  Generally, the students turn to me to resolve the issue, which wouldn’t be such a huge deal except every time this happens, no one has actually talked to the alleged “underachieving” student and tried to fix the issue themselves.

We all have situations in our life where we have to mentor someone.  Even if you have never taught a class, you may be a parent, you might need to train someone at work, or you simply have a friend who always comes to you for help.  Mentoring others not only improves your mentees’ lives, but gives you the satisfaction of knowing you’ve given them useful life skills.  But how do you transfer those skills effectively?  Here’s my list of dos and don’ts for helping others learn to help themselves:

Do Give Advice…

You probably have some real world experience to offer, so don’t hesitate to provide advice on the subject.  It could be as simple as outlining your experience to providing a huge list of resources your mentee can use to solve issues.  Advice provides the mentee with options on how to proceed, which he likely needs if he’s coming to you with a problem.

…But Don’t Take Action on Your Mentee’s Behalf.

At first, your mentee will try to get you to solve his problems.  This is natural, as you are the one with experience and could do it much more quickly than he could.  However, you must resist the urge to do so.  Instead, go back to advice, this time with more coaching.  If you have to, walk him through a process step-by-step to give him a more concrete example of how to do it himself.  While time-consuming, it’s better than doing the work for your mentee, which will only teach him that whenever he’s in trouble, you’re there to bail him out.

Do Check up on Your Mentee’s Progress…

Any good learning process will involve some level of feedback from you, the mentor.  You should expect checkpoints where you will evaluate your mentee’s progress.  Is she getting quicker at solving her own problems?  Is she becoming more adaptable to situations?  Can she tackle new situations on her own?  These are all good signs that you should recognize and encourage.

…But Don’t Be a Constant Presence.

Evaluations and checkpoints are one thing; breathing over your mentee’s shoulder is another.  If you get too involved in the minutia of your mentee’s decisions, she will become paralyzed, unable to make a move without your approval.  Give your mentee room to make her own decisions, and yes, even to make mistakes.  Sometimes, a mistake will do a lot more to help your mentee improve than all your words will.  You can always be there to remind her that, no matter what obstacles she faces, she can dust herself off and try again.

Do Set Clear Expectations…

As with all relationships, it helps to set boundaries and rules for mentorship.  If you have firm rules that you will only be available during certain times, then stick to that.  Sometimes having periods of “black out” times will force your mentee to be creative on his own.  If you start to break your own rules, it creates a slippery slope where your mentee may try to get you to solve his problems again.

…But Also Don’t Be Afraid to Let Go.

At some point during your mentorship, you may find that your mentee can handle himself or maybe he’s even surpassed you.  If you find yourself in this position, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.  There’s nothing wrong with letting the relationship go, even if you enjoyed mentoring.  Odds are, if you’ve helped this mentee succeed, others will also seek you out for advice.

What rules of mentorship have you discovered?  Please share them in the comments below.

Photo by Wonderlane

29 thoughts on “Help Others Help Themselves: A Quick Guide to Mentorship”

    1. That was my original thought too, Kathy. As a teacher, it is so much harder to teach a man to fish than it is to give fish, but it has much greater rewards in the end.

  1. This post reminded me of parenting Deborah. When you parent a child there comes a time when you must let them go. When my son left home for university I struggled, however I realized it was a natural progression in his development, I had held his hand long enough, it was time for him to fly the nest.

    1. I agree that all these rules apply to parenting. I have a toddler, and I have to constantly remind myself not to “hover” too much. Of course, my daughter can’t do everything by herself at this age, but when I step away and let her grow, she becomes much more capable than when I try to micromanage her.

  2. Being a mentor of over 20 years now, the greatest challenge is helping people to make that difference but not actually doing it for them. If they want me to do it, the relationship changes and I become a contractor not a mentor. Even when paid for my mentoring, I advise and help, encourage and add my wisdom but never do the work. Although that would be easier sometimes.

    1. I love the contractor analogy, and I’ve found it to be true in my own mentoring experiences. You switch from guiding to executing when you take over work, and it doesn’t help the mentee grow. Surely, it’s easier to get things done yourself, but at the end of the day, that’s not a mentor’s job.

  3. i ve seen quite few people who had troubles which i used to struggle with . i really wanted to help them out but they usually came with a ‘mind your business’ attitude , and since have stopped giving advice

    1. People have to be open to listen to advice in order for you to mentor them. That can be both a good and bad thing: some people learn through independence while others struggle by repeating the same problems. It’s a hard thing to deal with, but we are all ultimately in charge of our own development, whether we think we are or not.

  4. I recently read The Mentor Leader by Tony Dungy, and it really opened me to the idea that I don’t have to be in a specific mentor/mentee relationships to be a positive influence for someone looking for guidance. You don’t have to wait to be in a leadership position to be a mentor. Also, many years can pass before you realize that someone saw you as a mentor, and sometimes you will never know who you influenced in that way.

    1. It’s also been my experience that you can be a mentor without having that be your official title. People teach and train others in many ways. Just being part of a community or company, you are likely being a mentor.

  5. Great post with solid points about mentorship. I’m also a college instructor. I admit that I’ve recently taken a break from teaching the class with group projects because I get tired of all the group work issues.

    1. Glad to hear from someone who’s “been there, done that” as a college instructor. I teach a business course, so I feel that students need to have experience working in teams. That’s how business works: no one works in a bubble. As you noted, it can be tiresome, but as you probably also know, the students who do learn from the experience are generally well worth the effort. It’s just getting there that seems endless.

    2. Oh, do I agree with you on the group issues! I went to college as an adult, a class or two at a time while working full time, was married and had two young girls.
      There was always at least one member of the group who took advantage. I remember being part of a final presentation with a group of four, and one of the girls was a no show no call, and we had to completely wing her portion. This was in spite of offers of help, requests to stay on touch, regular update meetings, etc.
      I was never able to find the solution to a group experience that provided growth, learning, and satisfaction.

      1. The group work is really hard to teach. I try to balance by having 1/2 of the course graded as individual work and 1/2 as group work. Generally what happens is the free riders fail so miserably at their individual assignment, they get an appropriate grade for the course.

        Not to say this is foolproof. If anyone had additional suggestions for more seamless group classwork, I would definitely be interested.

  6. My previous work was never been detached from mentoring or of any act which meant such. I was working in a group or team for almost 15 years already – and it was such a long journey for me. And it has given me a lesson i wanted to share with my kids, family, friends and even strangers at that. For me, mentoring will always be a part of one’s lifetime. However, there is always the difference between those who does it because they were obliged for such task. Technically, yes i was the one responsible for such in my previous work – technically, it was one of my extra task to keep the team cohesive and operating in such a very stressful work we had. The most important lesson I had is that mentoring is a very natural instinct of people who had such passion of loving and serving his/her people. More so, this attitude exudes and inspires others too. I am one of those lucky people who have felt and seen such great acts being done on me.
    The reading was a very good read — not only for those who have been there but also to those who wanted to fix issues in life selflessly, in its most purest intentions. I missed my mom and dad on this. smiles…

    1. I know how you feel, Jai. There is definitely a difference between those who just ask and those who want to help others. I also feel lucky that I’ve had the opportunity several times to be a mentor, even if it gets hard and doesn’t turn out the way I expect. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. Great advice! It think is good advice for relationships as well. It’s easy to turn any relationship into a mentoring process, this is great advice for how to do that skillfully and honor the underlying value of your connection.

  8. Great information. I would add two things: walk the talk as well so your actions back up what you say, and to demonstrate humility, especially when you are wrong.

    1. Both are great additions to the list, Kim. If you don’t practice what you preach, you cannot be an effective mentor. And having humility when you’re wrong is simply good practice for interacting with others.

  9. Awesome post. I wish I would have had the opportunity to read this a year and a half ago when I was a mentor for the incoming international students at my university. Oooh well. Live and learn. Maybe I can forward it to the person who runs the program and she can give it as reading to the new mentors.

    1. Even if you’re not at the mentor at your university anymore, you likely have other opportunities to mentor others. I’ve found that even in small business work situations where only 2-3 people run the business, people often mentor each other. Teaching and growing is a natural part of life.

      1. Teaching and growing is a natural part of life and I really haven’t ever had a mentor besides the one I pay for, my therapist, and my editor. I’ve always been left to try to find my own way and that hasn’t worked out too well.

        I will try to find an opportunity to mentor others or to find a mentor. Thank you for the response.

        1. Not everyone wants to be a mentor, but over the course of my career, I have found people willing to help me out. A lot of times it’s not a huge time-consuming relationship, just a little advice when I ask for it, and then coaching as I work through a situation. Networking can often help find the right people, if you’re looking at a career-based mentor.

          As for mentoring others, I usually just offer to help where my skills are needed, whether that be in my community, my work, or my online acquaintance base (usually through LinkedIn). It doesn’t happen all the time, but people do reach back sometimes for advice. It’s always rewarding to give back your experience to someone else.

          Good luck on your journey, Sebastian.

  10. I think this is the ultimate thing is to teach people
    I highly agree that we all have to teach someone at somelevel on our life

    this man who know how to offer his teaching in an easy and interesting way ,win the day

    I am on my way of doing exactly this

    Eslam Talaat

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