How to Make Mentoring Work

Susan Hall

A lot of folks think having a mentor would be a swell idea, but have no idea how to go about it. An article at Federal Computer Week does a good job of filling in the blanks.


I wrote back in February about a Harvard Business Review piece by Amy Gallo in which she says the mentoring process has evolved and can be as simple as a single conversation with someone you admire.


That's not to say it has to be that informal. Some people have their own ideas. The Federal Computer Week article points out that Priscilla Guthrie, former CIO at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in her career has had what she calls her personal board of directors. She typically chose a senior-level leader from her current organization, a peer in her field, a subject-matter expert and someone from her personal life.These were her go-to career advisors.


The article quotes her saying:

Some of the opportunities to learn your craft aren't as easy anymore. Mentoring is almost an alternative way to work next to someone who knows something you want to know.

Among the advice on establishing such a relationship:


  • Be clear about your goals. What do you hope to gain in the relationship? Are you looking to improve your technical skills? Leadership skills? People skills? A specific agenda helps.
  • Choose someone with a personality that meshes with yours and who wants you to succeed. You don't want to be competitive. Will this person help you raise the bar?
  • Look for someone with the time and willingness to devote to the relationship.
  • To make it less intimidating, invite this person to coffee to discuss it.
  • Set the first meeting and prepare. Keep the discussion on track to avoid making it a venting or counseling session.
  • Set ground rules on when and how discussions will take place. How often? In person, by phone or other means? What are the boundaries of the relationship and off-limits topics? A formal mentoring program might be the answer if you're a younger woman seeking to gain a mentor that's a more experienced man. He might be leery of mentoring you out of fears of perceived impropriety.
  • Assess how things are going and make mid-course corrections.
  • Think about what the mentor will get out of the relationship. Understanding of generational differences? Learning a new technology? It should be a two-way street.
  • If it's just not working, politely suggest trying something else.


A separate piece on the site highlighted the four, 15-minute mentoring sessions offered to government workers at the General Services Administration Expo in May. It gave these workers time with leaders they normally wouldn't have access to in the course of their busy workday. Boy, you'd have to come prepared for that - the article says it was a big draw for the meeting. But think, if you had 15 minutes to spend with Steve Jobs. ...

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