Meeting Your Mentees Where They Are

Men­tor­ing has its built-in chal­lenges. In order to be a great men­tor, you have to have a con­nec­tion with your mentee. You don’t have to be best friends, but you should at least be on the same page to be of any help.

But what if your styles are dif­fer­ent? What if you’re an assertive, goal-direct­ed risk tak­er, who wants to get things done faster and bet­ter (what we in Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing call the Act­ing style)? And your mentee prefers to observe oth­ers, take mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives into account, and wait to act until he’s con­fi­dent about the out­come (Reflect­ing style)? Can you suc­cess­ful­ly men­tor some­one so dif­fer­ent from yourself?

Yes, you can. By iden­ti­fy­ing your mentee’s learn­ing style and meet­ing him there, you can guide him to suc­cess and help him devel­op, start­ing where he’s comfortable.

David Kolb’s nine Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing styles are found in peo­ple all across every busi­ness and cor­po­ra­tion, as well as edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions – every­where, actu­al­ly – and every day, peo­ple are asked to work togeth­er using very dif­fer­ent styles of learning.

For the men­tor-mentee rela­tion­ship, it’s impor­tant for the men­tor to first under­stand the mentee’s learn­ing style, and then guid­ance and coun­sel should start from that per­spec­tive. By the time an adult is in a pro­fes­sion­al mentee role, his learn­ing style can be sol­id. Per­son­al­i­ty type, edu­ca­tion and cul­tur­al back­ground all influ­ence learn­ing pref­er­ences. And once some­one finds suc­cess with a cer­tain style, he typ­i­cal­ly con­tin­ues to rely on it, rein­forc­ing the preference.

While men­tor­ing can mean pass­ing along things that have helped you become suc­cess­ful, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean enforc­ing your own learn­ing style on those you’re mentoring.

Let me give you two exam­ples. Marie, a man­ag­ing part­ner for an inter­na­tion­al finan­cial insti­tu­tion, had a quick, deci­sive learn­ing style and she strug­gled to men­tor oth­ers whose styles dif­fered from hers. Rather than let them take the lead, she jumped in to help them solve each chal­lenge as soon as they encoun­tered it. Things got done her way, but mentees weren’t real­ly learn­ing. She became frus­trat­ed with their lack of growth.

But then Marie rec­og­nized that she had con­tributed to the prob­lem by not allow­ing peo­ple to take enough respon­si­bil­i­ty for their own devel­op­ment. She turned the sit­u­a­tion around by tak­ing the time to iden­ti­fy her mentees’ learn­ing styles and changed her men­tor­ing tac­tics to suit them.

Anoth­er exam­ple is Zhen, who was reverse-men­tor­ing a more senior col­league on tech­nol­o­gy. She start­ed out frus­trat­ed by her mentee’s inabil­i­ty to pick up new infor­ma­tion. Was his age a hin­drance to learn­ing some­thing new? Once she became aware that he pre­ferred the Reflect­ing style, she real­ized his silence didn’t mean he was dis­en­gaged, but only that he was pro­cess­ing deeply and more slow­ly than was typ­i­cal for her.  Through­out the reverse men­tor­ing engage­ment, Zhen rec­og­nized skills and pref­er­ences in his behav­ior that she adopt­ed for her own.  While she was help­ing him to under­stand social media, he was show­ing her a dif­fer­ent way of being social.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that being a good men­tor doesn’t mean just cater­ing to and rein­forc­ing ingrained styles. Once you’ve iden­ti­fied your mentee’s learn­ing style and can “speak the lan­guage” he prefers, you can begin to encour­age him to try out new styles, which will accel­er­ate his over­all development.

To do every­thing I’m sug­gest­ing, you’ll need to real­ly know your mentees — talk to them, observe them, ana­lyze them, ask col­leagues about them. Since indi­vid­u­als’ learn­ing pref­er­ences are so deeply ingrained, your men­tor­ing will be more effi­cient and fruit­ful if you meet peo­ple where they are in the learn­ing cycle. Yet it’s equal­ly impor­tant to rec­og­nize when their styles aren’t pan­ning out. By play­ing to their pref­er­ences — while also encour­ag­ing them to become more flex­i­ble — you’ll help them dis­cov­er and reach their potential.

Kay Peter­son is founder and CEO of The Insti­tute for Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing. To learn more about the insti­tute and her work, vis­it