What to Look for in a Mentor

By Bobb Biehl
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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Every good mentor — or mentor couple — should have these three qualities.

The following checklist is a rather detailed, point-by-point academic exercise to help you find the ideal mentor for you. This checklist is only an attempt to help bring clarity in defining the kind of person for whom you are looking.

But even before you start reading this checklist, let me suggest that what you’re really looking for is a person that you know cares for you, believes in you, and naturally encourages you. A good mentor is a person you enjoy being with, who has more experience than you have, and who would be happy to help you win in life. If you already have that person in mind, this checklist will only confirm your intuitive guess that this person would make a great mentor.

The checklist is also helpful if you have two or three mentors to consider, but cannot determine which one you will ask. The mentoring checklist can bring out a few fine points that may help you make your final decision.

Before you choose a mentor, check to see if he or she has these qualities:

Your Ideal Mentor Is…

  1. Honest With You

    For example, one of my male protégés was very much a man but he had effeminate gestures. When the time was right, after several hours of talking about a wide variety of topics, I decided the time had come to be dangerously candid. I actually had to teach this friend how to use his hands and his head. That’s an example of raw honesty that was objective enough to help the protégé see clearly his potential and also the roadblocks keeping him from that potential. It’s a little like being a loving uncle or aunt, someone who will take you aside on occasion and tell you things you need to hear but frankly don’t necessarily want to hear.

  2. A Model for You

    Thomas Carlyle’s words are worth repeating: “Be what you would have your pupils to be.” When I take my associate team along for client consultations I ask them, “What did you learn by watching me as well as by listening to me?” Part of your mentor’s role is teaching you by letting you watch him or her, in addition to telling you things.

  3. Deeply Committed to You

    It may be a little difficult to see a mentor or a protégé as family. The Apostle Paul, when writing to his young protégé, Timothy, captures this thought when he said, “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1). Even though they are probably not blood relatives, see both your mentor and your protégé with a family level of commitment.

  4. Open and Transparent

    Cheryl, my wife, often encourages me, “Your associate team only hears about your successes. Let them hear also about your failures.” I have to watch very carefully that I tell my associate team not only when I have won, but also when I have lost and feel like a failure. For example, my associates often get the false impression that I am always “feeling like I’m on top of the world” because I am typically “up” when I’m with them. When they learned I have several days a year when I am deeply discouraged and feel depressed, they realized that being a consultant wasn’t only for “super positive” people, but regular human beings.

    Every mentor has struggles that the protégé never sees. The protégé might say with some hesitation, “My mentor can do this, but I don’t know if I’ll ever make it because I have problems with discipline (or doubt, or self-worth, or fatigue).” Ask your mentor to share his or her struggles, along with the success stories they’re trying to teach.

  5. A Teacher

    Many people do things well, but don’t know how to tell another person how they did it. At one time they learned how to do a given exercise (an accounting practice, a writing style, a trick of the trade) but have long since forgotten how they do it. Look for a mentor who can tell you how and why he or she did, or didn’t, do something.

  6. One Who Believes in Your Potential

    My father-in-law, Joe Kimbel, is one of my life mentors. Once he introduced me to his friends by saying, “I’d like to have you meet my son-in-law, Bobb Biehl.” Then he added, “Some day they’ll say, ‘I’d like to have you meet Joe Kimbel, Bobb Biehl’s father-in-law.'” That very thing happened 20 years later in Orlando, Fla., and I was humbled when I recalled his gracious prediction.

    Your ideal mentor needs to be the kind of person who looks at you and says, “Yes, I think this person has tremendous potential. I think if I invest some of my life in this person, she/he has what it takes to make a real difference.” Surprisingly, most Christian leaders with whom I have worked say they have never had a single person say to them, “You are a leader!”

  7. One Who Can Help You Define Your Dream and a Plan to Turn Your Dream into Reality

    Ideally, you are looking for a mentor who can help you clarify things that are in your head and in your heart. The mentor helps you answer the “dream question”: “How can I make the most significant difference for God in my lifetime?”

    Once clear, the ideal mentor can help you decide which of these dreams seem realistic and which do not.

    Note: Just because your mentor says you can or cannot achieve something doesn’t necessarily make it so. Your mentor is simply a human being trying his or her best to help you. Take their input seriously. The final decision, and responsibility, of the direction of your life obviously rests with you. Mentors are just there to help.

    Once the realism factor has been established, she/he can help you develop a plan to move from where you are to where you ultimately dream of being.

  8. Successful in Your Eyes

    You must feel that your mentor is the kind of person you would like to be like some day, in some ways.

  9. Open to Learning From You, As Well As Teaching You

    This might sound odd as a prerequisite for being a good mentor because it seems like the mentor’s job is to teach and the protégé’s job is to learn. But I have found that if I remain teachable, then I am modeling the teachability that I want my protégé to have. You can learn from everyone. What’s more, I have found that as a mentor pours himself into a person and gives and gives and gives, sooner or later that person in whom he has invested so much will want to give something back.

    Let’s say I, as your mentor, have a whole sack of oranges. You’re thirsty and I give you some of my oranges. Sooner or later you’ll want to give something back to me. You might say, “How about a tangerine from me?” If I say “No, thank you,” that makes it seem as though what I give is valuable but what you give is not. It shuts off the chemistry. If I the mentor can learn from you, then suddenly mentoring becomes a two-way street. You think to yourself, “Hey, my mentor respects me” (and vice versa).

  10. Willing to Stay Primarily on Your Agenda, Not His or Her Own

    This is part of the definition of the mentoring relationship.

Bottom Line

In all of your analysis, be careful not to forget the simple truth that what you’re really looking for is a person who you know cares for you, believes in you, and encourages you. A good mentor is a person who you naturally enjoy being with, who has more experience than you have, who would be happy to help you win in life, to help you grow in sensitive areas most other friends simply “put up with” on a day to day basis. If you have found this person you have found a mentor.

Continue reading.

From Mentoring: How to Find a Mentor and How to Beome One, published by Aylen Publishing. Copyright © 2005, Bobb Biehl. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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