Experience shared: How to be an effective mentor

Published: Thursday, 22 March 2018

This article looks at how a productive and focused mentoring relationship can be used to develop and retain staff in the care sector.


  • Mentoring techniques are best used with colleagues who evidence clear commitment to their roles and a desire to improve.
  • Mentoring is most effective when:
  • a team member requests mentoring or is eager to engage when it is suggested
  • the team member has ownership of the mentoring process.
  • Effective mentoring sets SMART targets that are goal focused.
  • The benefits of an effective mentoring relationship are mutual.

The adult social care sector has an ongoing struggle with recruiting and retaining the right staff. There is also a high turnover of care managers, so succession planning is important to develop staff to take on more responsibility. One way of developing and retaining staff is through an effective mentoring scheme.

Good mentoring stems from appropriate leadership

Although the focus of this article is on how to be an effective mentor, it is important to understand a little about leadership theory, because mentoring might not be suitable for everyone.

There are numerous theories about leadership styles, but it can be argued that all of them boil down to four clearly defined styles of leadership:

  1. The Dictator: Tells others what to do and does not seek their opinions.
  2. The Mentor: Shares a breadth of professional and personal experience so that others might learn and gain independence.
  3. The Coach: Assumes that colleagues know what to do, uses questioning to check understanding and then monitors progress to ensure task completion.
  4. The Delegator: Knows colleagues possess skills and understanding and that they can be trusted to complete tasks without leadership interference.

Colleagues benefit from being led in different ways dependent upon two key factors:

  • their capability (how well they can do the job)
  • their commitment (how likely they are to complete a task set).

Let’s meet four fictitious members of a team.


Sandra is an experienced member of the team who possess a wide range of skills, knowledge and experience. She completes any task asked of her to the best of her ability and on time.

Sandra is highly capable and has high commitment.


Bob is also an experienced member of the team. While he has a wide range of skills, knowledge and experience, he is a bit disengaged and can’t always be counted on to meet deadlines or produce high-quality work.

Bob is highly capable but has low commitment.


Safia is a new member of the team. She is eager to do a good job and, with support and guidance, completes all tasks to the best of her ability. She doesn’t have a breadth of skills, knowledge or experience yet, but she is eager to learn.

Safia has low capability but has high commitment.


Sean is on placement with the team and, unfortunately, things are not going well. He has very limited experience and doesn’t appear to care.

Sean has low capability and has low commitment.

Each of our four team members needs to be led in a way that will enable them to flourish since, if they are led in the wrong way, at best we will stifle their ability to succeed and, at worst, we will set them up to fail. The table below (‘Pairing leadership style with capability and commitment’) shows the management style most suitable for each team member.

Mentoring is not appropriate for everyone but, for team members who are committed to their role and eager to learn, it can be a highly effective staff development tool.

p8 Diagram

Good mentoring is owned by the person receiving mentoring

Too often, mentoring is seen as something that is done to colleagues to improve or develop them. This is seldom effective. Effective mentoring is provided when a colleague identifies a development need, sets clear goals and has ownership of the process.

Motivation is what drives all of us to do anything: to get out of bed in the morning, go on a diet, ask someone out on a date or walk the dog. Motivation is most effective when it is intrinsic (when it comes from within) and less effective when it is extrinsic (imposed upon us). Motivation can also be seen on a continuum – it is seldom totally intrinsic or extrinsic.

However, for mentoring to be an effective development tool, colleagues must want to be mentored.

Effective mentoring: A simple five-step process

This five-step mentoring process assigns ownership of the process to the person being mentored. Here’s how it works:

  • Step 1: Create a vision of your ideal future – write out your dream and be specific.
  • Step 2: Create goals from your vision – what are all the steps you will need to complete to achieve your goals?
  • Step 3: Set SMART goals – these are goals that help you understand exactly what you need to do.
  • Step 4: When setting goals, also identify obstacles.
  • Step 5: Create plans to counter each obstacle.

A smart goal could look like this: ‘At the end of every day I will produce an accurate “to-do” list of outstanding jobs to be completed the following day.’

  • This goal is specific, describing the end result in terms of what is expected and when it is expected.
  • This goal is measurable, describing the end result in terms of quality, quantity, deadline or cost.
  • This goal is achievable, setting a challenge, but one that can be fulfilled with the right amount of effort.
  • This goal is realistic, with practical and relevant conditions.
  • This goal is timely, as it is appropriate in terms of current needs and has a time frame making it clear how long the activity will last.

Mentoring a colleague using this five-step process will enable them to identify a development need, set personal development goals, outline the steps needed to fulfil their potential and identify and overcome potential barriers.

What’s in it for the team leader?

If you are a busy team leader, can you afford the time and effort required to mentor when you already have plenty of other demands to cope with? Mentoring is not a case of ‘giving up’ your time and energy to helping others achieve their goals and solve their problems – it will also benefit you in a variety of ways, as outlined below.

A more committed team

When you make a genuine effort to include people in setting their own goals, making decisions and implementing their own ideas, they are likely to become more committed and focused.

Better team performance

Because of its dual functions of managing performance and developing people, mentoring leads to better individual and collective performance.

Better working relationships

Good mentoring promotes trust and collaboration, and leads to better working relationships.

Better ideas

When you get into the habit of giving ownership to colleagues, you may be pleasantly surprised at the quality of ideas people come up with.

Better information

If you are genuinely mentoring people in a collaborative, open spirit, they will feel more confident in coming to you with vital information, including telling you the ‘bad news’ while there is still time to do something about it.

Investing time to gain time

There is no doubt that in the short term it’s often quicker to ‘take charge’ and give orders instead of mentoring. That’s fine for ‘firefighting’, but in the long term, the more you direct, the more people will rely on you for directions, and the more of your time will be swallowed up by it. If you invest time in mentoring, however, over time your team will require less and less direction, and you will be confident in delegating more and more to them, freeing up your time for the tasks only you can accomplish.

The role of a mentor can be richly rewarding for any team leader. As well as developing a highly effective, innovative team who set their sights on their own professional development, agree clear goals and make a positive and valued contribution to your team. Being a mentor can also make a significant contribution to your own professional development and the satisfaction you receive from your role.


Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Steve Burnage is a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Steve may be contacted by email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via his website www.simplyinset.co.uk.

Most frequently read