How to be an effective mentor

A big part of our mission at One Up One Down is to teach more people to become effective mentors.

Mentorship is not only a way to give back to others, it is also a way to learn about yourself both personally and professionally. It can provide the mentor and mentee with an opportunity to develop essential skills used in a variety of settings

Principles for becoming an effective mentor:

Principle 1: Understand your mentee’s reality

By this we mean understanding enough about your mentee so you can do your best to see the world through their eyes.

Firstly, let’s explain what we mean by their reality:

Every person sees and understands the world through their own lens. This lens is created by the beliefs a person has, which have been shaped from significant experiences in their lives up until that point. It impacts their desires, fears, ideas, career aspirations, values, strengths, weaknesses and all areas of their personality.

The experiences that have shaped what you think and feel may be different from the person you’re mentoring, therefore it’s important to take the time necessary to understand your mentee’s reality thoroughly.

Asking questions is a powerful way to understand and communicate with your mentee effectively.

Here are a few to get you started:

  1. Ask about their story. Try to understand how they got to where they are now, and what the drove their decision making. Where do their ambitions and goals come from? Do they have a strong internal guide for decision making, or have they been heavily influenced by others around them?
  2. Find out more about their current job and lifestyle. What are they happy/unhappy with and why?
  3. Dive into the direction they are taking. Are they clear on where they want to go and what it’s going to take to get there?

Determine from these questions how you can use your experience(s) to support the mentee on refining their direction and/or taking the next steps towards it.

Principle 2: Get to the underlying problem

One of the most useful things you can do as a mentor is to work with your mentee to help them understand what the real, underlying problem is that may be holding them back with their development.

If someone is stuck on a particular problem and not able to figure it out for themselves, often it’s because they lack the skills and/or experience needed to identify what comes next, or because they need an outside perspective to provide clarity around the solution.

As a mentor, you can ask further questions to understand the types of skills, experiences or perspectives your mentee might like to consider:

  1. New skills and experiences. It’s easy to get stuck when the next step requires you to do something you haven’t done before. Ask questions that encourage the mentee to draw the conclusion that there are areas they need to up-skill in. The below example helps illustrate how a conversation like this might go:(a) A mentee is currently working in a job they do not enjoy. They would like to quit but are too scared to do so. (b) The mentor asks why they are too scared to quit.(c) The mentee is worried about being able to support themselves financially. (d) The mentor asks whether the mentee knows the minimum amount of money they can live off per month. (e) The mentee says no, they haven’t looked into it before. (f) The mentor, from past experience, knows the value that can come from having clarity around one’s financial situation – i.e. knowing what the minimum amount of income they will need to live and save each month. The mentor then suggests the mentee makes a financial plan to support them leaving their job and sustaining this outcome. This helps move the mentee from being overwhelmed and uncertain, to being calm and having a degree of certainty.
  2. New perspective. Sometimes solving a problem requires changing the lens that it’s being viewed through – approaching it from a new angle. This is where the views, experiences and ideas of a mentor can be valuable. If the mentee’s problem is one that you’ve experienced yourself, you can share your experiences to give some perspective. If you haven’t experienced the problem before, ask questions to help the mentee view it from a different angle. An example of this is as follows: A mentee is wanting to start their own business and have the idea that in order to solve their funding problems, they need to raise investment. What they may not realise is that it is very hard to get investment based on solely an idea. A mentor may have been through a similar experience themselves and as a result knows that raising investment is not necessarily the most suitable solution. The mentor then suggests self-funding as an alternative solution to change the mentee’s perspective to something that may be more realistic and achievable. This opens up opportunities that the mentee may not have been aware of.

Principle 3: Support your mentee on the journey of finding their own answers

As a mentor, your aim is to support your mentee to draw their own conclusions. While giving advice is great, and necessary in certain situations, it is also extremely valuable to let your mentee come to their own realisations about their problem or potential solution.

It’s common for mentors to feel as though they aren’t being effective because they may not have the ‘right’ answer, however this is not the case. Some of the most effective mentors are those who don’t assume they have all the answers, but rather have a process and enough experience to know how to ask valuable questions and provoke thoughtful answers or realisations.

In supporting your mentee, be conscious that communicating is a hard thing to do well. There are many thoughts, experiences and observations your mentee has that are important considerations in their decision making process which they may not be able to communicate to you effectively. This reiterates the importance of continuing to ask questions to best understand your mentee’s current reality and drivers for this – all of which are continually evolving.

Once you’ve got your communication down-packed and you’re starting to better understand your mentee, make suggestions around the actions they could take and ask for feedback to gauge whether the solution you have in mind is the best for them.

Note: It’s important to make the mentee feel as though it’s okay for them to disagree with what you’re saying. This will help to get to the best answer and/or solution for them. People learn a lot through realising what they don’t want, and it helps with the process of getting to a better pathway.

Principle 4: Instil confidence & certainty in your mentee

Certainty is a valuable feeling, as it makes taking action easier. To help someone feel certain requires helping them to develop more clarity about a decision and confidence about their own abilities to take action and execute on their decision.

They need to feel confident in their own ability to execute, not reliant on you as a mentor.

To help your mentee feel competent, focus and reflect on things that are working just as much as what isn’t. It’s important to identify areas for improvement but with a solution-focused approached, rather than a ‘doom-and-gloom’ approach. By doing this, you can help to transfer some of the confidence and competence that exists in other areas of their life into this new area you are helping them to work through.

At the end of the conversation, have the mentee decide on the next steps they can be held accountable to for your next meeting.

Wise advice given by one of the most effective mentors we have come across was to ask at the end of the conversation “so now, what is the no. 1 priority?”, followed by “why is this this no.1?” This is effective because the decision and it’s justification is lead by the mentee.


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