Get in shape to be a champion mentor

22 Jan 15

In challenging times, public sector managers can bring out the best in their staff through learning and development programmes in which mentoring plays a key role, writes John Neal. Below are his top 10 tips based on Ashridge Business School’s work with a range of sports to improve individual and team performance


The world of public finance managers and their teams is changing beyond recognition as they cope with new ways of working, slimmer teams, more work and new stakeholders. Many will follow learning and development programmes to help them along the way – but is this enough?

In a global survey, one leading organisation said that it views L&D as a continuing process in which mentoring plays a key role. Mentoring is on the increase in the public sector to enhance staff development at all levels through to senior management. 

In one public sector organisation staff were given the opportunity to train as mentors and to gain a diploma. In one-to-one situations, staff enhanced their skills, knowledge or work performance. The mentor’s line of questioning, listening and understanding enabled the mentee to find solutions or new avenues to understand their problems or challenges. 

Another organisation, in the private sector, found that mentoring improved both job satisfaction and staff retention. 

Mentoring relationships can create a space for increased openness and honesty, as well as a place for personal growth and reflection outside the normal boundaries of performance management and accountability. 

One advantage of the public sector over its commercial counterpart is that the various organisations involved won’t be competing with each other so can be more open about sharing. However, senior managers can be reluctant to participate, viewing the expectations around mentoring as an imposition or yet another drain on their time. Likewise, without the perceived reward of more formal training, mentees can also feel let down. 

Avoiding such pitfalls clearly requires the development of a mentoring culture. This may be through competency frameworks and performance measures that reinforce these techniques. In fact, the development of others should be seen as an essential part of being a good manager, rather than an optional extra.

To justify any mentoring programme, some form of evaluation must take place. This may involve 360 degree employee feedback, looking at how performance and behaviour have changed. 

All of these factors are important considerations in getting the most from a mentoring programme. And the end result is likely to be an uplifting impact on staff performance, motivation and satisfaction.


1  Self-awareness at the core 

An effective mentor should understand themselves and their character when under pressure. This means they are more likely to be focused on the mentee’s agenda without allowing their own issues to cloud the dialogue. Spend time getting to know yourself before you start mentoring. Look into the darker side of your character. Examine the biases that could cloud your judgment, something which often happens when working under pressure.

2 Be Curious

A constant desire to understand more, to be passionate about the process and not the solution will lead to inquiry without judgment. This gives the mentee the space to discover their own solutions, rather than to follow your advice. Of course, your advice as the mentor may not only be wrong but possibly out of date and, most importantly, your solution will not be owned by the mentee.

3 Create new futures

Mentoring is about prompting actions to create new futures. The past may inform and explain where the mentee has come from and why they are where they are. The mentor needs the ability to help the mentee to look forward and create a future they desire and that inspires them. A robust plan needs to be developed, based on their current situation. Beware of mission statements and goal setting. These do not motivate anybody, despite all the ranting by motivation and life coaches at this time of the year. A great mentor will help you to discover what is achievable.

4 Trust is the mentoring accelerant 

Trust is vital. Without trust between mentor and mentee little progress can be made. And trust starts with the mentor. Do you as the mentor trust yourself? Most people have a quiet but dangerous voice inside their heads that offers a running commentary as they go through life … who are you to shine, to be so good? If we do not deal with this voice and do not trust ourselves then why should anybody else? Use this simple trust formula:  Trust = Competence x Character x Commitment x Intent - minus Personal Interests.

5 Offer rapport – not empathy

Rapport is taking the trouble to understand the mentee’s outlook on the world – how they see things and why – without judging them. Empathy is where you show that you agree with their viewpoint. This mustn’t get in the way, especially if you do not share the other person’s perspective.

6 Questioning for understanding and not power

Questions should be used appropriately to develop understanding and clarity for the mentee. When you ask a good question the mentee will stop, pause and think. What could be better for a mentor than to cause another person to search inwardly for answers to their own question? It can challenge the mentee to see things in a different way and to come to their own robust conclusion. Only when mentees form their own solution are they likely to take action and make changes. 

7 Be a good listener

Listen not just to the words, but also to how the words are used and the accompanying body language. You need to seek out what is being said, as well as understanding where the emotional energy lies, and to really hear the mentee. Make sure that they feel they are being fully understood. Good listening is exhausting and requires that you let go of your own views and agenda. Try it tonight when you get home. See how long you can listen before expressing an opinion.

8 Feedback leads to the route ahead

Feedback is the food of champions. Remember that it is only data and is not always fact. With this in mind there is no such thing as good or bad feedback. A mentor should be comfortable about seeking data and passing it on. You need that data so that you can plan the route ahead.

9 Relevant knowledge will gain respect

Being a master of your craft takes time, and needs study, experience and practice. You do not need letters after your name, but you must know your stuff. Having the relevant knowledge will enable you to gain respect from the mentee. Seek to ask the right questions and develop a strong rapport and trust. 

Understanding where you have relevant knowledge which might help is incredibly important. Nobody knows everything and we all have our boundaries that we should stay within. A great mentor knows what they know. Constantly stay curious to learn more but also have the humility to recognise what you don’t know … and then to use questions to move things forward.

10 Have your own personal system of mentoring

This is the not the place to start an argument about what mentoring is and how it is different to coaching, leadership, teaching or counselling. The key is that as a mentor you know what you think it is and that you have your own personal system of mentoring. 

Using another person’s model or adopting the practices taught on a course is only a framework, which must be adapted to best suit you. Appreciate your background and skills, the environment in which you are working and most importantly the person you are mentoring. 

This feature was first published in the January/February issue of Public Finance magazine


  • John Neal
    leads mentoring programmes at Ashridge Business School, working with both public and private organisations

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