Great mentoring takes a dose of perspective

by Kirsten Avison

When someone who reports to you provides you with a product that’s not up to your standards, do you ever wonder why? It’s easy to make assumptions. Perhaps you think they’re lazy, lack the knowledge to do the job or have too much on their plate.

In reality, it might be none of those things. Maybe it’s you.

As a supervisor you can’t expect your reports to deliver quality, on-task work unless you invest the time to equip them with the requisite skills and make sure they know what you’re looking for in terms of output.

You also have to be willing to let them make mistakes.

This last part can be a challenge, especially if you’re working to timelines and budgets (and when aren’t we?). But if you don’t give your employees a chance, they’ll never get better, and your workload will only get bigger.

Good mentors know that timing is everything. They are not afraid to give the straight goods on performance, just not on the day that their mentee’s cat died.

They see the big picture and understand that most mistakes are not the end of the world. When their mentee make mistakes (and, if crashing your boss’s car counts, I have personally made some doozies) great mentors react first with care and humour and then help the mentee see them for the learning experiences they are.

Finally, the best mentors pass the torch. They not only help their mentee become a capable and experienced employee and leader, but impart the skills that will enable them to mentor their own cohort of mentees.

Here are some of the mentoring skills I hope to pass on to my own mentees:

1. Be honest

Praise the good traits of others, but don’t rub it on where it is not deserved or spread it too thickly – Napolean Hill

Give employees a true assessment of their efforts. Don’t conceal criticism in a so-called “praise sandwich,” but at the same time don’t forget to acknowledge with pleasure when someone does a good job.

2. Ask questions

Asking open-ended questions allows your employees to think introspectively about their performance. It makes them responsible for digging deep to analyze not just what happened in any particular scenario, but why. It’s a much more valuable approach than just telling them what went right or wrong and it equips employees with vital critical thinking skills – a key component of an executive skill set.

3. Have clear expectations

People need to know not only what’s expected of them today, but also what they need to achieve to move to the next level. Job descriptions that outline precisely what’s required for every level are a must. They provide clear boundaries and incentives for great performance. Equally important is ongoing, unstructured and real-time feedback.

4. Trust

One of the best ways to engage employees is by making them feel valued and trusted. One of the easiest ways to do this is to meaningfully include them in meetings and decisions. Follow up to review what they observed and ask for their opinions.

5. Foster accountability

Depend on your employees to deliver. Empower them to make decisions and hold them accountable for those decisions.

These approaches to mentoring require taking some risks. You will more than likely make some of your own mistakes along the way. With any luck, your supervisor will approach these mistakes with their own humour and perspective.


Kirsten Avison is an Associate at Wazuku Advisory Group and a key member of the strategic advisory team where she facilitates engaging sessions, manages projects, conducts thorough strategic analyses and develops strong and lasting relationships with clients.