How to Excel as a Mentor or Mentee


Around 30 years ago, I was invited to spend three days with Peter Drucker, the guru of gurus, the man once dubbed “the creator of modern management.” That experience is among my most cherished memories and is a defining moment in my leadership journey.

I absorbed Drucker’s wisdom, and at the end of our time together, he asked, “Now that you have learned from me, who will you teach?”

I hadn’t really thought much about mentoring until that point. I was in my 40s and still on a steep developmental slope. I pictured mentors as older adults with legacies firmly in place. But then it hit me: At mid-career, I certainly had more experience than those who were just starting out. And I held the wisdom of leaders who’d taken the time to share their experiences with me, everyone from Drucker to my college professors to my father. I didn’t want to be a repository of information—I wanted to be more like a river, fed from a source and then flowing out to sustain multiple streams, creeks and pools.

I’d like to explore mentoring in this column: How to give knowledge, how to receive it and how to establish a productive partnership. Mentoring is a cycle that never stops. Once you embrace it, you are always going to be mentoring and you’re always going to be mentored. Even today, at 70, I consistently seek the wisdom of others. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: Sometimes my teachers are much younger than I am. Mentoring is born of experience, not age.

Related: The Powerful Legacy of Mentoring

For the mentors:

1. Choose judiciously.

I’m often asked how I choose my mentees. I can’t cite a formula. I certainly don’t have an application process. I go largely by instinct and by observation: Have the candidates demonstrated potential? Is their passion evident? Are they clear about what they hope to achieve? How do they approach me? A young man once asked if he mailed me a card with a single question each month, would I write an answer and send it back? His earnestness and respect for my time struck a chord. We corresponded through letters for years.

I also consider my skill set. Can I deliver what this person seeks? Will my talents and experiences accelerate this person’s journey? If the answer is no, I’ll try to match him or her with someone else.

2. Don’t overextend.

When you take someone under your wing, you need to make sure you aren’t squeezing him or her into an already overcrowded space. I work with no more than 10 people a year, offering them my undivided attention when we’re together.

Always remember that mentoring doesn’t require a scheduled, sit-down appointment. Some of my best sessions with Mark Cole, my longtime mentee and my company’s CEO, are simply teachable moments that arise throughout the day.

3. Consider your lessons carefully.

Mentoring is both spontaneous and structured. Early on I made the mistake of scripting lessons based on what I thought my mentees needed. These days, I let my mentees set the agenda, ask the questions and dictate the direction of our sessions. But I control their structure. Good instruction has three elements:

Layers: Your lessons should layer on top of one another. You are developing a foundation. Your mentee will go on to build a house.
Connections: Your lessons should connect with each other, like puzzle pieces, with each bit of information linking to form a bigger picture.
Exploration: As the foundation develops, your student should understand that one lesson leads to another, and that one line of questioning can branch into numerous directions.

4. Pass it on right away.

Every time you share information, you are re-teaching yourself. It’s a verbal way of highlighting the most important parts of a learning experience. I like to pass on new knowledge quickly, when it’s fresh and I’m fired up about it.

Related: 7 Ways to Be the Best Mentor Ever

For the mentees:

1. Know what you want.

Before you approach a potential mentor, ask yourself:

• What am I trying to learn? What are my short- and long-term goals?
• Why am I courting this particular leader? (Note: Because he or she is rich and/or famous is not a valid reason.) How can he or she help me achieve those goals?
• At the end of the year, what will I consider a win or a gain from this relationship?

2. Understand the relationship.

Mentoring should be friendly, but it’s not a friendship. The time is used intentionally, with well-defined objectives for each session that support a long-term, overarching goal.

3. Respect your mentor’s time.

When one of my heroes, the legendary basketball coach John Wooden, agreed to meet with me, I treated the opportunity as a one-shot deal. I arrived at his Los Angeles apartment armed with five pages of questions, single-spaced, on a legal pad. He looked at me a little stunned, but then granted me hours of his time. At the end of our meeting, he looked at me and said, “John, I enjoyed this. When you think of more questions, you can come back and see me again.” Score!

One of my former mentees is Courtney McBath, a remarkably talented young man who established Calvary Revival Church in Virginia, now one of the nation’s biggest congregations. McBath would start each of our sessions like this:

This is what you said…
This is what I learned…
This is what I did…
Did I do it right?
Can I ask another question?

My answer was always: “Ask away.”

4. Know when you’re ready.

My first mentors—after my dad—were books and audiotapes. I was just starting out. I wasn’t qualified to be tutored by anyone yet. What did I know?

Start with independent study. Keep notes. Write down your questions. The best of those inquiries might become your version of the “John Wooden list.”

5. Show your growth.

Once you do land a mentor, share your successes, large and small. Mentors don’t ask to be paid. Their reward is your success.

Related: 10 Ways to Find Your Ideal Mentor


My life became richer the moment I accepted Drucker’s challenge. I love being caught up in this continual cycle of learning and teaching, and knowing my mentees will do the same. Mentoring is how we spread our influence, transfer our wisdom and allow others to take part in our experiences.

Today you have learned from me. Now how will you teach others?


This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.

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