Meeting Your Mentees Where They Are

Kay Peterson

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