The biggest mentoring mistakes, according to one of the world's leading experts

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Mentoring in modern business is becoming increasingly popular, as seen through the number of companies implementing formal mentoring programs.

When it comes to best practice, measuring success and ways to be a better mentor, David Clutterbuck is the man in the know.

He is one of the early pioneers of the sector, is co-founder of the European Mentoring & Coaching Council and has authored 70 books on the subject over three decades.

Business Insider caught up with Clutterbuck following an Art of Mentoring event in Sydney last week, to find out what are some of the biggest mistakes people make in the mentoring process.

Here’s what he had to say.

“It think that there’s this perception that mentoring is just about going to somebody else and they’ll tell you what to do,” he said. “And that’s completely the opposite.

“If we go back to the origins of mentoring it’s all about somebody helping you work things out for yourself. What the mentor would typically have some experience that you wouldn’t have, but they draw on that experience. Not to say that, ‘I would do this,’ or ‘Let me tell you about my experience,’ but they draw on it to basically say, ‘Okay, let’s look at this question,’ or ‘Let’s use that,’ or ‘What do you think about that?’

“They basically use their wisdom to help somebody else develop wisdom of their own. That’s one of the ways we describe it.”


UK-based Clutterbuck says Australian businesses are some of the best positioned in the world when it comes to having access to experienced mentors and resources.

“Australia was one of the countries that was one of the first to really get going in mentoring… I’ve definitely been involved with people who’ve been trying to make mentoring work for at least 20 years. And so there actually quite a lot of experience here, which can be draw upon, in the terms of good practice. And also a lot of understanding of when it does goes well and when it doesn’t go so well.”

Here are some of the biggest mentoring mistakes Clutterbuck says people make.

Platforms like LinkedIn don’t work

“[On LinkedIn] basically all you’re doing is just linking with somebody who’s got some information that you might want. LinkedIn information exchange is probably valuable, but mentoring is a relationship that’s a long term thing,” he says.

“What we are observing is this sense that we haven’t got enough time, or the resources, to do mentoring properly to actually focus on people’s careers… so we’ll just put two people together to have a conversation and exchange information.”

People are seeking professional advice but want it for free and that’s where “LinkedIn and Facebook and a few other organisations” have launched mentoring tools which he says are “not really mentoring at all”.

“The dilution of mentoring is a real challenge for us… If we give people in organisations the idea that just ringing someone up for a quick chat, that doesn’t require any skills at all, we’re going to undermine the effectiveness of our true mentoring programs.

“Mentoring makes people deeply think. Little conversations don’t.”

Don’t assume anything

Don’t assume the other person is going to be interested in all your life experience, he says.

“Many mentors think they’re ‘going to give them the benefit of my experience’, when actually, that isn’t necessarily what the other person needs, or wants.

“We know that effective mentors speak for less than 20% of the time. Their key, though, is to say just enough to get the other person deeply thinking.

“For senior people, shutting up can be quite a challenge. The skill is to use their wisdom and experience to craft questions that stimulate the mentee to think out loud.”

But be careful with those questions.

“If you know where the conversation is going there is no way that is a mentoring, or coaching, conversation,” he says.

“The moment you have a sense of direction to it, that you can predict where it is going to go, you’ve lost that special thing that makes it a mentoring conversation.”

Don’t take notes, straight away

“Should you take notes? If you take notes your brain is focused on writing. The skill of writing is a relatively new phenomenon for us. It’s something that we don’t have a bit of the brain set aside for.

“And so if you are making notes you are not listening fully. Good practice turns out to be you don’t take any notes at all and then you get to a point in the conversation where there is a natural pause and you say to the other person what would you like to capture.

“What you are doing is getting them to take responsibility for determining what’s important. And what I find fascinating about that is what I might think is important… is rarely quite what they think is important.”

Practice your skills on someone outside your team first

“If you want your line managers to be effective coaches to their teams, one of the things you can do that speeds the whole process up is to first make them a mentor to someone outside their teams. Because you have got an opportunity to practise all those skills that you would like to use on your direct reports but don’t dare.”

Don’t treat your mentor like a genie

A mistake mentees often make, according to Clutterbuck, is to “think the mentor will be always available for them whenever they want them,” he says, adding that it’s often millennials seeking “immediate gratification”.

“‘I’ve got a problem my mentor could solve, so I’ll call him now,'” he mimics. “The mentor isn’t there to be at the beck and call.”

“Also, the mentor isn’t there to sort your problems out for you. Your mentor is there to help you work things through yourself. In fact, when you bring an issue to the mentor, first thing he might say is, ‘So tell me about your thinking about this issue so far?'”

Or a role model

Don’t use “the mentor as a role model,” he says.

“We notice in the path of the development of relationships, particularly if it’s an older person and a younger person, the younger person will tend to want to be like the older one. They will see them as more successful, further advanced in life, and so they’ll think, ‘I want to be just like that person.’

“What’s important is to be much more realistic about this, and say, ‘Actually, no I don’t want to become them. I want to be myself, but there are things that I can learn from them, which will be useful for me, and I’m just going to focus on those particular things.'”

Avoid relationship ‘droop’

This is “when you get six months in and you’ve dealt with all the easy stuff and you run out of things to talk about,” he says.

“This happens somewhere between three and five or six meetings into the relationship.

“What do you do at that point?”

He says there are systems that you need to have in place to actually know that it’s happening and support people through it.

“So you might as well say, ‘Okay, let’s get together in six months time when you had a chance to implement all these things.’ Or it could be that ‘you really need to get into more depth on things because things are going to stop you achieving what you want to achieve, internal things like your degree of self-confidence’.

“If you don’t get into these things you just slow the whole progress down… and it stops you being the person you could be, or as successful as you could be.

“We’ve all thought these things. We don’t often not talk about, that are uncomfortable, those critical truths that most people won’t tell us, but the mentor is one of the few people who will. Getting into real depth about these things, and about what’s important to you.

“How do you motivate yourself by really accessing the things that you value, and understanding your aspirations and your strengths and your weaknesses?

“Basically, you got take a deep breath and dive in… in order to get there.”

Speed mentoring doesn’t work

“There’s something else that’s come up called ‘speed mentoring,’ which basically you go into a room you get 10 minutes, or even less, with somebody who can help you start up a new business, for example. And that’s got some utility, but, again, it’s not a relationship and the quality of what you get is … and there’s no one monitoring that, or some of the advice you get may be absolute rubbish … it just has no integrity as a process.”

Have an open dialogue, not a discussion

“And all we’re really trying to do [in mentoring] is have a really good conversation,” he says.

“A dialogue as opposed to a monologue or a discussion. I think there’s a big difference between discussion and dialogue. [In] a discussion you’re trying to basically come out with some kind of compromise, but dialogue you’re trying to create some new meaning and very often that’s for the mentor as well as the mentee.”

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