Establishing Great Mentoring Partnerships

By Tenny Mickey, PhD

It has been proven that people in organizations who are receptive to positive mentoring enhance their performance faster, enjoy more positive exposure, and appear to enjoy their work better than those who are not. Effective mentors also derive great pleasure from supporting others as they advance their careers. A relationship built on trust and respect creates a secure and safe environment for mentoring to take place. It is often confounding when thinking about why more people are not involved actively in mentoring relationships. I will discuss some of the challenges related to developing and sustaining a positive mentoring relationship in this article. Also, I believe that mentoring between two people must be a partnership. In this article, I will make references to the terms “mentor”, ” person being mentored”, and “mentoring partnership.”

First, I believe a mentor is someone who has a deeper level of experience in organizations. By this definition, the critical factor is the experience the mentor enjoys in a specific area. Many people make the mistake of believing a mentor must necessarily be older with many years of experience. I have found many people who have developed specific levels of expertise early in their careers are equally experienced. Some early career mentors have displayed a knack for a specific skill, an interest, and has taken the opportunity to deepen their skills in a specific professional area. So, let’s be more open as to whom will be the best mentor for specific needs and interests. As seen with the ubiquitous opportunities to upskill through technology usage, one’s skill-set is not necessarily a function of one’s age or interest in mentoring others.

An important behavior for a mentor is the willingness to share knowledge and experiences in a manner that supports the growth aspirations of the person being mentored. A mentor is super interested in the success of the person they are mentoring. The mentor must be experienced enough to help the person being mentored clarify their interests, set goals, and develop a process to achieve those goals. A mentor should also have a greater sense of how their experience and your goals will impact future organizational decisions. Throughout the mentoring partnership, the mentor should have broad enough experiences to support the person being mentored as they work through challenges that will no-doubt emerge as their knowledge increases and roles advance.

The mentor’s responsibility is to create a relationship that gives room and space for the person being mentored to learn. A common mistake occurs when people believe mentoring is about teaching how things should be done. Successful mentors rely upon their effective listening skills as indicative of their respect, caring for, and a genuine interest in the other person… the building blocks of trust.

The above foundational pointers suggest that the mentor and person they are mentoring should establish the ground rules for the mentoring partnership at the very beginning. Together, they must decide if the relationship will have a formal arrangement, an informal one, or a combination of these two. The mentoring partners should also discuss what each believes will describe an effective and comfortable mentoring partnership. They should be clear on the amount of time each person will be able to commit to the relationship. By having this conversation first, each partner in the relationship will gain a sense of the other’s needs and expectations. With this understanding, each partner will be able to have meaningful conversations when the relationship is not going as expected.


Successful mentors must realize that mentorship is all about meeting the person they are mentoring where they are…currently. It is a key factor that the mentor should listen fully …question deeply… solve at the root! This means mentors should focus on the critical areas of the problem expressed by the person being mentored. One can only do this by listening fully. When questioning, it is important to realize that the mentor’s interest is not always the optimal solution to the problem. It is often sufficient to make sure the person being mentored is focused on the right problem to solve. Also, is this the right priority on which to focus at this time? Often asking questions will yield new processes to use when examining new problems. Effective questioning also allows the mentor to tell stories of how situations of this type have occurred and been solved in their career.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of “SOLUTIONEERING.” Mentors have many points of experience to rely upon when helping their mentoring partners find solutions. It is often tempting to provide a ready solution that is based upon the mentor’s experiences. Great mentoring however suggests that the person being mentored will “learn how to fish” when working with their mentor. Mentors are best when they share anecdotes that mirror the person being mentored experiences. In this manner, the information is more likely to be remembered and applied more appropriately in the situation being discussed. This will also encourage the formation of broad principles that might govern future situations. It is very important in the partnership that sharing information is equal. This is helpful for the mentor to listen more than telling. For the person being mentored, this can create psychological safety in that they feel equally able to express challenges and propose solutions.

Mentors also validate and allow their partners to gain confidence in their ability to make decisions. This is sometimes achieved by feeding back, and sometimes expanding on, what the mentor has heard the person being mentored say. Sometimes people have a great hunch about the right solution, but when hearing it being rephrased by their mentor, clarity and confidence increase. This method also allows the mentor to provide a framework that helps to organize thinking, develop future processes, and build increasing confidence in how they approach solutions.


Effective feedback is a vital aspect of the mentoring partnership. How feedback is provided and received is extremely important. There are several factors to keep in mind when giving or receiving feedback. The following checklist helps members of the mentoring partnership keep this in mind:

• Always have the best interest of the mentoring partnership outcomes in mind
• Always balance improvement needs and positive feedback
• Observe each other’s thoughts and reactions with positive interest and curiosity
• Focus on facts and behaviors rather than emotions and personal attributes
• Acknowledge and summarize each other’s contributions when responding
• Provide feedback in a supportive way
• Strike a balance between being too friendly and too formal
• Ask probing questions to learn deeply and to stimulate alternative thinking processes


Empathy is a key element in the mentoring partnership. As mentors question deeply and listen intently, they should focus on a deeper understanding of the obstacles. More importantly, when “drilling down” is the ability to display empathy. The questions should be balanced to (1) provide insights about the situation but with the realization of (2) how the other person in the partnership is experiencing the situation. This is a good practice to adopt when dealing not only in the mentoring partnership but also in other situations at work. It is important for the mentor and the person being mentored to experience and share the value of empathy.


A mentor should ask questions that are stimulating, meaningful, and impactful. Marshall Goldsmith, the coaches coach, always suggests that mentors start with the end in mind. The mentor is then able to focus on the “ask” and thereby guide the coaching relationship with the end-point in mind.

Another great question is to ask “what is it that you need right now?“ This helps you understand how you might be most supportive. It’s so easy to jump into giving advice based on your experiences. Is that what the person being mentored needs? Do they want your advice? Do they need an advocate? Or do they need just a “…you got this!!”

Discourage people in your mentoring partnership from asking solicitous questions. Often, the person being mentored becomes vulnerable and chooses to show others their capabilities. Don’t bite…rather, encourage them to come up with tougher questions. They are not in this relationship to charm their mentor, but rather to become vulnerable, share, learn, and grow.

Many people in mentoring partnerships will focus on their career advancement. It is important to understand what is driving this interest. Is it a passing fantasy…something that feels exciting at the moment? Is it something they are thinking about as a career end-point? Is it a way of seeking personal prominence among their workmates? Is it a career choice that feels prestigious or profitable? This is a very important place in which a mentor can help them “dial it back” by plotting the path carefully that will yield longer-term satisfaction.

Asking about taking personal time for reflection and rest is another important element of mentoring. It is important to know that personal balance is very important for success in all aspects of life and work. Many people being mentored believe it is more important to deliver an energetic appearance as a reflection of their strong work capabilities. It is key to practice and to emphasize that rest and reflection are also key factors. Your first job should be as much about you proving yourself as about you understanding yourself, getting a better idea of your strengths and how you can prove yourself in an arena that you love later on.”

It is essential that the mentee and the mentor mutually agree that the content of their discussions will be kept confidential. This will enable the person to be mentored to explore preliminary ideas before sharing them with a wider audience. It is also helpful when expressing doubts and reservations without having to be afraid of any consequences in other situations.

Lastly, it is critical to evaluate the progress of the mentoring partnership as the most important aspect of each meeting. This information gained will be useful in honing the effectiveness of the partnership.


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Tenny Mickey, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant with Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC. As a Leadership & Organizational Psychologist, & Executive Coach, Tenny helps LEADERS improve their effectiveness. She relies upon her successful work as an officer in 3 Fortune 50 organizations (News Corporation, Disney, and Compaq) & 16 years of effective Organizational & Leadership Consulting. Additionally, each of her academic achievements, ranging from ( a Historical Black College & University) Huston-Tillotson University (BA), (Ivy League) Harvard University (EdM), and (Professional Psychology) Fielding Graduate University (M.A. & PhD) has contributed to the knowledge, respect & understanding she relies upon to support individual success. She is further stimulated and inspired to gain “new knowledge” each day. Feel free to contact Tenny through

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