Do Yourself A Favor–Help Somebody (5 Classic Guidelines for Mentoring)

Have you ever reached a crossroad in life and wondered which way to go?

It’s not uncommon. At that point, we need a little more help than Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

What we really need is a mentor, someone to come along side and provide a modicum of guidance. We need someone who can point in the direction we need to go—or in some cases the way we should not go.

I’ve had several good mentors. Here are five things I learned from them.

Set A Good Example

I’ve heard thousands of sermons, most of which I can’t recall. But I could fill your ear with what I’ve observed.

My best mentor was a man who said very little. I worked under him for nearly fourteen years. My first novel, Moe, is dedicated to him, and the dedication says it all:

For the late Mel Stratton

It’s not your words we remember,
But the work of your hands.
You taught us the meaning of excellence,
And showed us the good and faithful servant.
No, not the words, Mel, for they were few.
But we’ll never forget your sermon;
It was the best we ever saw.

Here’s a few things that made Mel a great example:

  • He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. When he said, “We need to do….”, that’s exactly what he meant. He led the charge, even if it meant nothing more than picking up a broom to sweep the work area.
  • He thought before he opened his mouth. (I wish I was better at this!) Consequently, when he did speak, people paid attention. His superiors valued his opinion.
  • He took responsibility. If he made a mistake, he owned it. And if our crew did something wrong, he claimed the screw-up as his own.
  • He let us fail without ever letting us think we were failures.

Though I’m not a fan of Albert Schweitzer, he did say something worth repeating. “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

Confess Your Shortcomings

We’re all sinners, so it’s pointless to pretend we’re perfect. The façade will eventually fall, and we’ll lose credibility.

At one job, I had a staff of people who worked under me. My performance review—and hence, my bonus—depended on how well my department operated within our budget.

One day I bawled out one of the staff for a mistake that cost our department some time and money. On the heated walk back to my office, I became convicted of how poorly I’d treated that person. She wasn’t the only one who’d make a mistake like that. Her supervisor had, too.

I returned to her office, apologized, and asked her to forgive me. Then we worked together to fix the problem. To this day, we’re good friends.


In his TED talk on listening, Julian Treasure said, “Conscious listening creates understanding.”

Sometimes folks want to discuss things that, on the surface, appear unrelated to the subject for which they sought our help. But we can gain insight into a person’s problem by simply listening to other things they’re saying.

All my good mentors were listeners. They never suggested a path to take without learning the greater context of my life.

Give Honest Feedback

Most of us have experienced the sandwich method of criticism: lead with a little praise, make the criticism, close with some more praise or encouragement.

I hate this method.

It’s confusing, almost deceitful, like getting a pat on the back, followed by a blow to the gut, then another pat on the back. The last time you received a criticism by this method, did you happen to remember the pat on the back?

Don’t beat around the bush. Say what’s wrong—in a nice way—and then help fix it.

One of the best feedback sessions I received came from a private instructor in graduate school. She coached me in platform arts (i.e., drama), and I greatly admired her. She was a consummate performer.

After I recited a piece in her office, she folded her hands on her desk, smiled wanly and said, “That wasn’t very good, was it?”

When I agreed with the obvious, she asked where I thought it was weak. She accomplished two things by doing this:

  • She boosted my morale by crediting me with the ability to self-diagnose.
  • She initiated a dialogue that led to a team effort at fixing the problems.

I left her office a little wiser. Plus I got a “pat on the back.” As she opened her office door, she gave me that same wan smile and said, “Much better, Jim. Much better.”

Show That You Care

It doesn’t take much. A little hug. A short note of encouragement. (Handwritten ones still work the best.)

In this digital age, most of us have adapted to Facebook posts, tweets, or text messages. They’re okay and certainly better than nothing.

But I prefer face-to-face, whether I’m seeking advice or giving it. I like the intimacy, and you can tell more about a person by watching facial expressions and listening to the tone of voice.

This digital age has also brought us Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangout, and other methods for connecting visually. I haven’t used these tools much in the past, but I will in the future. Carving out some time to be face-to-face with someone—even if it’s only digital—says more than tweeting, “I feel your pain.”


In a way, we’re all mentors. Someone is watching and learning from us. What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from a mentor? What’s the most important thing you’d like folks to learn from you? Share it in the comments.

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