What makes a great mentor?

“A mentor is not someone who walks ahead of you to show you how they did it. A mentor walks alongside you to show you what you can do.”

The Mentor; Image Source: 7plus.com.au/the-mentor

Last week, as I was facilitating a catchup of this year’s Waterway Management Mentoring Program, I was sitting in my hotel room channel surfing and I came upon a program called ‘The Mentor’.

Amazing, I thought to myself, as here I was facilitating a mentoring program! I settled in to watch and learn from ‘The Mentor’.

Unfortunately, I found I learnt nothing from the episode other than how not to be a mentor! Instead of listening, supporting and encouraging, I found ‘The Mentor’ belittled, humiliated and put his mentee into a range of awful situations. When I investigated the show further, I came upon a quote ‘The Mentor’ had said to his mentee; “I’m not going to sugar coat it. I’m here to tell you the real shit.”, and I found this to be wrong on so many levels.

The episode left me feeling pretty shocked by this portrayal of mentoring, and I wanted to set the record straight on what, in my eyes, makes a great mentor:

1. Listening ๐Ÿ‘‚

This is the number one skill of a mentor, as so often we are in such a hurry to tell everyone how much we know, that we never listen to each other. As a mentor, your job is to listen to the mentee, ask questions, explore issues, and provide insights from your personal experience that might help them along their journey.

2. Mutual trust and respect ๐Ÿค

Mentoring is a relationship based on trust, and trust thrives when those involved in the relationship feel respected and valued. Trust takes time to build, and that is why in our Program we have workshops running over a few days, and involving lots of different activities, so that people get to know each other and lay the foundations for trusted, respectful relationships.

Waterway Management Twinning Program 2018 - Kilmore Creek Offsets Project: Mentee Kirsten Roszak, Goulburn Broken CMA [left]; and Mentor Natalie Dando, North East CMA [right].
Andy Lowes with mentor Tamara Boyd, participating in the Waterway Management Twinning Program.

3. Willingness to learn and share knowledge ๐Ÿ“š

Keeping both parties energized about the relationship depends on mutual learning and knowledge sharing. It is important for mentors to be proactive about asking questions when they see the opportunity to learn from their mentees โ€” as well as connecting the dots after their sessions to see what they might glean thatโ€™s relevant to their own work. Mentees can do their part by asking mentors what they want to learn or know more about so that they can share any relevant experiences or knowledge.

4. Openness and supportiveness ๐Ÿ‘

The mentoring relationship should be a โ€˜safe placeโ€™ where both mentor and mentee are able to be vulnerable. Vulnerability might be admitting things they donโ€™t know (especially on the mentor side) or skills they have difficulty with. It could be discussing openly a project or other work-related matter that has not gone well. Sessions based on trust and openness mean that difficult topics can be explored in a supportive and safe environment.

5. Constructive feedback ๐Ÿ’ช

Sadly, it is often the case that ‘feedback’ is given in ways that are negative and confrontational, or you hear about it via the rumour mill of work gossip, which is equally as damaging. This is disappointing as well-constructed feedback can be so useful and empowering for all involved. Experience gives mentors a different vantage point to see a lot of what a mentee, may not.

Mentors who are good at sharing their wisdom from experience, rather than just dictating what to do next, can help their mentees validate whether their assumptions or actions are correct. They can help leapfrog obstacles that wonโ€™t matter down the road. They can tell you how the story is likely to end to save you time going down roads yourself.

6. Empathy ๐Ÿ˜Š

Recent research on leadership has shown that the number one skill great leaders have is empathy. For too long empathy has been seen as the ‘warm and fluffy’ stuff, yet science is now showing this is the hard part of relationships, and that people who are compassionate, who listen and who tailor their behaviour to support and inspire others, make the best leaders. A great mentor is someone who walks beside the mentee, not someone who dictates and instructs what others should and should not do.


In the episode of ‘The Mentor’ that I watched, I have to say I struggled to see evidence of the six skills I have shared above, which I believe are the starting point of mentorship. I would like to hope that people don’t get the wrong impression of what mentoring is from this program, as I believe that workplaces that invest in mentoring have happier, more productive people who feel valued and supported. It is for these reasons that I am proud to facilitate the Waterway Management Mentoring Program.