Posted by: alexswallow | March 18, 2014

Being a mentor and having a mentor- 3 key points

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

I think having a mentor and being a mentor are two of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

I have a range of mentors, both formal and informal, and I have been both a formal and informal mentor a number of times. I am currently a mentor on the Charityworks Programme and used to be a mentor for UpRising.

I list mentoring as one of my five key tips in my advice about becoming a Charity Chief Executive.

These are the key things I think you should consider:

1- You deserve to have a mentor

A lot of people I meet give me the impression they feel that they don’t ‘deserve’ to have a mentor or that no-one would be interested in supporting them. This is very far from the truth. For a start we are all human beings with our own hopes and dreams, some of which we don’t feel comfortable talking about with our friends, family or work colleagues. Sometimes we want to work through a problem for which we may need someone who has more experience than us, or who isn’t directly involved in the situation. This is where a mentor can help. Also, asking someone to be a mentor is not usually a huge time commitment on their part- perhaps just a coffee once a month. You are worth the time investment of a coffee once a month- and if it feels better, you can buy the coffee!

2- Someone deserves to have you as a mentor

As difficult as some people find it to think that they should have a mentor, they find it even harder to believe that they themselves could be a mentor. I think there are two key things to remember here. The first is that I think the most important quality a mentor can have is simply to listen to their mentee- and anyone can do that if they try hard enough. Quite often the mentee will work things out for themselves just by articulating things aloud. The second is that actually the mentor-mentee relationship is never just one way. Both sides learn something from it. For example, when I am a mentor, I often find myself giving advice and guidance that I don’t follow closely enough in my own life. For example I will tell my mentee not to be too hard on themselves and then I will be hard on myself. It’s good to realize this. At other times, the mentee will come up with an unexpected answer to a question which will help the mentor learn and grow as well.

3- Having or being a mentor is easier than you might think

Once people have got over the hurdle of valuing mentoring in their lives, the next thing they worry about is finding one.

I guarantee you that right now there is someone out there who would be happy to be your mentor and someone who would love you as a mentor. It’s one of the reasons why, in the right circumstances, I love ‘playing matchmaker’ and putting people in touch that can help each other.

If you want a mentor: Decide what sort of person you want, to help you narrow your search. For example, do you want someone at the top of their career, or just a few steps ahead of you? Do you want someone from within your organisation, or outside it? Does it matter to you what gender your mentor is? (For many people this answer will be no- I’ve had both male and female mentors and my four formal mentees have all been female). Next, do you have any links to the specific people or the type of people you want to meet- is there anyone in your existing networks who could introduce you? Then, approach the person you would like to be your mentor. Explain why you are interested in what they do- flattery never hurts- and see if they would mind having a quick meeting. Always give them an ‘out’ so that if they are too busy they can say no without being embarrassed. Most people though, at the very least will suggest an alternative option as your mentor if they don’t feel able to help themselves. Also, even if they do say no, you have still started a connection that may be mutually valuable one day. Many people like helping others and would be only too happy to be a mentor- but no-one ever asks them.

If you want to be a mentor: Listen out for people who need a bit of help and support. There are formal mentoring programmes, but also in your networks right now there are people who need your guidance. If you seem open to requests for help there is every chance that could turn into a mentoring relationship. Also, please don’t think of mentoring as something that has to be really formal. I was a mentor in some ways before I realized it- I just tried to support people who needed my help- and I am sure you are too.

So, please believe you deserve a mentor, believe someone deserves you as a mentor, and take the first step! Or if you are involved in a mentoring relationship already, please spread the word about how important it is.


  1. I totally agree Alex. Everyone should have a mentor and protoge!

  2. You’re right in that people do think of mentoring as a formal relationship (I used to think of it like that as well). Certainly being proactive and identifying and approaching people who can help you in your career is extremely useful. I would also throw in the idea that business relationships should aim to be collaborative, so in other words think what you can also offer the mentor (in terms of sharing good practice).

  3. […] Try to find a mentor who knows about the charity sector and has connections in it. Click here to listen to my pep talk about mentoring. […]

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