Five Tips For The Informal Mentor

When I hear the word “mentor,” I immediately think of Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi, Richie Cunningham and The Fonz, or Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi – older, more experienced individuals teaching young whippersnappers the way of life.  I also think of how many individuals and businesses set up formal mentoring relationships.  Meet at such and such a time for coffee or lunch.  Discuss topics for a half hour.  Obtain assignment to read a book or answer personal development questions.    Rinse and repeat.

A mentor is defined as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher” and “an influential senior sponsor or supporter.”  But sometimes, informally, you become the unsaid or unwritten mentor; the person who people turn to for guidance, advice, or answers.  This usually happens by default.  You’re the most experienced person in the department or you’ve been with the company the longest.  Being an informal mentor is a good thing.  It means that people like, respect, and trust you enough to look to you for direction and assistance.


With newer and less experienced individuals coming in and out of our department, I’ve found myself playing the role of informal mentor.  Inevitably (or maybe right now), you might be in this position as well.  Here are five things to keep in mind as you dispense your sage advice:

Give Freely: I’ve worked with individuals who were conspiracy theorists or were always thinking there’s an “angle.”  Why is this person coming to me for advice?  Why are they asking me how to do something?  Do they want my job?  Are they trying to make me look bad?  STOP.  There’s not always an ulterior motive to people’s behavior.  Maybe someone is coming to you for help…because they need your help.  Giving unselfishly of yourself builds trust, strengthens team bonds, and adds to your reputation as the go-to guy (translation: valuable to the company).  There’s also the karma aspect of giving.  What goes around usually comes back around.  Like Zig Ziglar says, “You can have anything you want if you just help others get what they want.”

Show Them Landmines and Shortcuts: At the heart of mentoring is wisdom.  In other words, the value of saving someone time, pain, effort, or embarrassment by sharing what you’ve experienced or what you know.  My last manager was a company history book.  He was known for spinning great company stories.  A lot of people kind of just blew these stories off as reminiscing about the past or unfocused detours (which they could be at times – especially when there was an agenda to get to).  However, these stories had great pieces of advice on how to navigate the company.  In the same way (maybe without the 15 -minute story attached, although there’s a time and place for that, too), light the path for the person you’re trying to help.  Show them how to do something properly, who or what to avoid, who to seek out, or how to be more efficient.


Be Honest: If you can’t be honest, then the mentoring doesn’t work.  Like any good relationship, the foundation is built on trust.  Trust is gained through honesty.  Now, there’s honest and brutally honest.  Depending on how you operate and whom you’re helping, this is something you’ll have to gauge for yourself.  Some people aren’t built mentally to withstand a no-holds-barred assessment: “Who taught you how to write?  Did your thirteen-year-old daughter write this?”  Others have no patience for sugar-coating.  My informal mentor would take a red pen to my reports so much I thought someone had bled on the paper.  We eventually just referred to it as “red-penning” a report.  At first I was both irritated and embarrassed.  He could have easily just done a few edits here and there.  Instead, he basically firebombed the entire report.  Looking back several years later, it was the best thing he could have done for me – giving honest feedback.

Allow for wins and losses: In other words, let them learn.  You’re all adults so I’m not going to use the parent-child analogy.  But when mentoring someone, let him or her do the job.  A lot of times we want to stay in control.  Maybe because we don’t want to look bad, there are time constraints, or we don’t want to see others screw up; but failure is part of the learning process.  I would have never learned to write a good report if I didn’t get red-penned.  On the flip side, let them experience victory as well.  Nothing builds a person’s confidence more than being successful at something they’ve never done before; running a meeting, making a big presentation, or completing a well-received report.

Give Yourself Props: For those who don’t like to pat themselves on the back or give themselves credit, it’s OK to do this once in a while.  By unselfishly giving of your time and experience, you’re: 1) helping someone get better; 2) improving the company; and 3) strengthening your team.  It’s also an indication of your value to the company and all of the years of hard work, learning, and experience you bring on a daily basis.  You may not be The Fonz or Yoda yet, but it’s something to be proud of today.

How do you mentor others?