Best Practices for Mentors

By its nature, mentoring is an personal experience, even when the topics discussed are professional. Each mentoring experience will be different; however, what follows are some best practices which have proven useful for a wide variety of mentors in SEED, the Sun Engineering worldwide mentoring program. The focus here is on what the mentor can do. For information on best practices for mentoring programs, see topics in the series list, below.

Some context to establish credibility…

After all, anyone can say theirs is the best practice!

SEED has been the mentoring and leadership grooming program for Sun Engineering worldwide since 2001. Almost 1,200 pairs have participated. SEED is proud to maintain an average 90% satisfaction rating reported quarterly, year-after-year.

A Recent Recommendation: From Karen Rohde, SEED Mentor, Senior Vice President Human Resources, and Sun’s Chief Talent Officer (used with permission):

Date: 	Fri, 10 Jul 2009
Your SEED mentoring program has been a "bench mark" for other mentoring
programs at Sun.  It has been a key component in increasing Sun's overall
engineering strength and capability -- resulting in significant positive
impact for Sun.
Thanks for sharing the information and the articles.  This is great work
and deserves external recognition as well.
...Congratulations on such great work!

Mentoring Isn’t Rocket Science

Mary Artibee
was a SEED mentee before she became a four-time SEED mentor. Before leaving Sun, Mary was a Senior Staff Engineer in Software, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her mentees were in Colorado (USA), Russia, India, and China. A year ago I asked Mary to give a SEED presentation about what she had learned about mentoring. Mary’s “Mentoring Isn’t Rocket Science” talk provided a succinct overview of some of the best advice I have heard from many experienced mentors (used with permission): 

Worst Practices

(or How To Dis-serve Your Mentee)

No time, no time…

— Cancel at the last minute because something really important comes up

— Come late, leave early

— Oops, I forgot

— Why bother to schedule meetings

Did you say something?

— I’m the ME in MENTOR

— When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it

— If it worked for me, it’ll work for you

Everything you do is wrong

— Why in the world did you do that?

— Well, if you can’t explain it, I can’t help you

— Just do what I say and don’t ask questions

No explanations necessary

— Surely you can learn by osmosis

— No need to share this since it was sent to an email group

— If everyone knew about these resources, who’d need me?

So as I told your manager…

— Confidentiality, what confidentiality?

— I didn’t think you’d mind my sharing…

Did you want to get something out of this?

— Goals? goals? we don’t need no stinkin’ goals…

— Did I say I’d do that?

— Your satisfaction is not my problem

Best Practices

(or There’s More to Mentoring than Meets the Eye)

The Fine Art of Effective Listening

— Two ears, one mouth… (from Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”)

— Patience: problems can be more complex than you think

— Sounding board, not “bored”

— When remote, acknowledge frequently (paraphrase, clarify)

Advise and Catalyze

— Not just one answer: It’s recognizing and weighing options

— Share problem-solving skills and let the mentee find the solution

— Discuss the impacts of taking various actions

Flexibility (the Mentoring Asana)

— Respect mentee’s choice to do what’s right for their situation

— Accommodate changes in topics and goals

— Life happens – reschedule, don’t disengage (deadlines, holidays, illnesses)

Objective Support

— Provide timely constructive feedback as a disinterested third party

— Be a safe harbor for venting; be a trustworthy confidant

— Evaluate progress and adjust goals

— Encourage getting outside comfort zone (reward risk-taking; learn thru failure)

Share Yourself, Be Committed

— Meet regularly – It’s not mentoring if it doesn’t actually happen

— Meet in person whenever possible

— Have an open door

— Provide the connect between their goals and the company’s goals

— Connect mentee with your network, engage in theirs

— Share your passion and have a passion for sharing


A Peek into Mentoring

One way to take a peek into successful mentoring relationships to see how they really work is to read blogs. From time-to-time, a SEED mentor or mentor blogger is inspired to document something notable about her mentoring experience. I search out these fascinating personal snapshots because each blog post offers an immediacy and freshness of expression that I never get in quarterly feedback reports!

Here are some of my favorite blog posts on mentoring experiences:

  • “This past month, I asked my former graduate adviser if I could have permission to launch and run a new program — a mentoring workshop series to help students and alumni to get their work published in a professional journal, magazine, or presented at a conference … and he said “yes”. So we start next Thursday, with a panel of 7 speakers, and 20 participants. It’s not a class. There’s no grade. I won’t get paid. But this is my one small step — this is my walk on the moon.”
    From This is my one small step; this is my walk on the moon 30 May 2008 blog – in “Musings on design & other stuff, jen’s place” by
    Jennifer McGinn (who also wrote an excellent six-part blog series called “Things I tell my mentees”)
    Jennifer McGinn was a SEED mentee, and also a two-time SEED mentor

  • “Mentors get as much out of the relationship as the mentees. It seems rather odd. Here you are supposed to be giving great advice to someone who is spending their time listening to you, trying to gain knowledge and to further their careers, and it boomerangs. Yep, that’s right. It happened today to me.”
    From A Swift Kick 10 September 2007 blog – in “Susan’s Blog: Seeing is…” by Susan Miller
    Susan Miller was a SEED mentor and manager of SEED mentees

  • “Our mentoring relationship comprises a phone call every couple of weeks and face-to-face meetings if we ever end up in the same city at the same time. I have to admit, I was pretty intimidated the first time I called Radia – she is not exactly a shrinking violet – but we seemed to hit it off and have spent several hours – well – chatting, basically.”
    From Chatting with Radia 23 March 2007 blog – in “Superpatterns” by Pat Patterson
    Pat Patterson was a SEED mentee, and also a two-time SEED mentor

  • “Here’s what I got out of that relationship…
    – Introductions to people I never would have met unless I walked up and introduced myself….
    – Respect by association. People thought that because I hung around with my mentor, I must be pretty sharp too….
    – A champion who did some awesome PR for me. My goal today is to try to live up to the reputation she built for me.”
    From I’m not sure what I would get out of a mentor relationship… 5 February 2007 blog – in “The Downtown Diner” by Melanie Parsons Gao
    Melanie Parsons Gao was a SEED mentee and manager of SEED mentees

  • “I was inspired by the Technology and Courage paper by Ivan Sutherland. I decided I’d like to try to increase my knowledge in an area I’ve just started getting interested in – electronics and hardware design. I want to combine this with fun projects, that I can share at a later date with my son as he grows up… As electronics and hardware project construction were new to me, my primary goal was to try to be self sufficient in constructing new simple circuits by the end of the six month mentoring period.”
    From Playing with LEGO at Sun – Mentoring Projects 16 June 2004 blog – in “Rich Burridge’s Weblog” by Rich Burridge
    Rich Burridge was a SEED mentee, and also a SEED mentor

Priority Best Practices

At lunch today, Tanya Jankot, Helen Gracon, and I (three mentoring geeks) discussed best practices for mentors. We could not add anything to Mary Artibee’s excellent list but we did come up with our top priorities:

  1. Confidentiality
    Mentors and mentees should keep their discussions confidential. If either wants to pass on information or impressions from their discussions to anyone, they should check with the other party before doing so.
  2. Commitment of time
    The mentor should respond promptly to the mentee, and make their mentoring time a priority. SEED recommends that mentoring pairs spend one to two hours together every two weeks.
  3. Listening and Passion
    To teach and inspire, the mentor needs to listen to the mentee and share their passions.


Information is from my experience since 2001 managing Sun’s SEED Engineering-wide world-wide mentoring program. Other entries in this continuing series:

For more about SEED, see the program home page at

    1 Comment

    Filed under Mentoring & Other Business

    One response to “Best Practices for Mentors

    1. Steve Uhlir

      I’d add one more suggestion. As a mentor… ask questions. Questions are far more powerful than answers, if used correctly. (This is a powerful suggestion in many other situations, too.)
      … Of course I didn’t model my suggestion in the way I made it as I phrased it as an answer rather than a question. Oh well….
      (BTW… "42" was the answer to the simple math problem for this post. How appropriate… if you know tHGttU.)

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