The makings of a mentor

Several qualities are essential to being a high-quality mentor. Mentees should seek out these abilities when finding a mentor to boost career growth.


Wanted: Newly graduated engineer with aspirations for owning her own consulting firm seeks mentor for long-term relationship.

There’s no for engineers seeking mentors. However, if there were one, what would an enquiry look like? What qualities would you look for in a mentor?

1. Good mentors educate. One of their primary roles is to pass on lessons they’ve learned about life and careers, and knowledge they’ve gleaned over decades of experience. Often this education is communicated subliminally between the lines in a mentoring conversation, when a mentor shares a life story that completely parallels one you may be going through. The advice you hear then is formed in your mind as a listener, not in the mouth of the mentor telling the story. This is the soundest advice.

2. Good mentors are incredibly accessible. Ironically, in today’s busy world of constant contact and availability, no one seems to have time to just talk or listen. Not so for good mentors—they make time to answer your communication. In essence, they are never too busy for a question or to have a conversation with you. And they never seem to be bothered by a call. In fact, they know that, often, calls are time-sensitive; you have a need and the conversation can’t wait too long.

3. Mentors give good guidance. Mentors provide guidance on career life and direction—the larger picture about your career and where it’s going. Good mentors never push a mentee in terms of any agenda beyond the mentee’s needs. Every conversation starts with your best interests and grows from there.

4. Good mentors show they care. While it may sound funny to read that and it’s sort of a “duh,” you’d be surprised how this incredibly simple idea is actually quite complex in its execution. Good mentors care about your progress in terms of your career planning and growth opportunities to stretch and learn new skills. Good mentors also are deeply concerned with their mentee’s personal development: Is the mentee in a place where doors are opening up to help him or her to develop new management and leadership skills, hone new technical knowledge, and learn to think more globally about the work they do? If not, good mentors will tell you because they care.

5. Forget about having just one mentor. While mentors can be part of a deeply rewarding long-term relationship, they’re not necessarily monogamous. I’ve been fortunate to have the same mentor for 26 years; however, as wonderful as he is, he is not the go-to person for every aspect of my career. I’ve found that having several mentors is needed to address the twists, turns, breadth, and depth that careers take over time.

6. Good mentors are specific. Giving advice on what a mentee is doing well is paramount to creating the space and trust in a relationship to be honest about what needs to be corrected. Good mentors critique constructively, talking about achievements and specific work actions and behaviors that lead to growth and better work. Good mentors will challenge you with their specificity about what you need to be developing; they’re not cheerleaders.

So if you’re looking for a mentor, or thinking about becoming one, keep the qualities above in mind because matching needs and expectations at the very beginning is essential for long-term relationships.

- Smith is the department chair of the Curriculum, Language, and Literacy program at Concordia University Chicago. She has more than 12 years of experience in adult teaching and training and has published feature articles on mentoring and training in Consulting-Specifying Engineer. Smith also provides research and training services to firms in the buildings industry in a variety of career skills topics ranging from networking to public presentations.

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