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How to be a Great Project Management Mentor

MentoringWhat is great mentoring?

I often think about what each project manager can do to learn and grow and to eventually become the best project manager they can be.

Formal education and being given the right opportunities play a large part. But mentoring has a part to play too.

Imagine, for instance, how your career would have looked if you had had the greatest mentor from when you first started out as a project manager. I’m sure that it would have accelerated your professional development.

But mentoring doesn’t just help the mentee. It’s also highly beneficial to the mentor who can feel a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment from helping others move forward.


Test your knowledge of mentoring

To approach the topic of what great mentoring looks like, we are going to start with a little quiz to test your knowledge. Each statement below is either true or false. Write down your answers on a separate paper.

  1. A mentor is a senior colleague whose role is to guide and manage junior staff.
  2. A mentor provides information, advice and assistance in a way that empowers the other person.
  3. A mentor’s role is to provide stories and examples from his or her own life in order to improve the mentees performance.
  4. If a mentor cannot build rapport with the mentee the relationship will be ineffective.
  5. In mentoring, asking “what” and “how” is better than “why”.
  6. A mentor is professionally trained to help an individual live up to their full potential.
  7. The mentee is responsible for learning, growing and achieving results.
  8. The mentor is responsible for the mentees performance.
  9. The mentor is responsible for initiating the mentoring meetings.
  10. It is okay for the mentor to give advice as long as it empowers the mentee.


Did you find the questions easy to answer? Let me reveal the scoring key and then explain the thinking behind them: 1(false), 2 (true), 3 (false), 4 (true), 5 (true), 6 (false), 7 (true), 8 (false), 9 (false), 10 (true).


A mentor is often someone who is more senior and knowledgeably than the person being mentored.

It is someone who has been there and got the T-shirt and who is in an ideal position to support, guide and advice a more junior colleague.

The mentor will often work within the same organisation as the person they are mentoring, but their role is not to manage their mentee or to tell them what to do.

When you manage someone you have an agenda and a certain performance target or output that you would like the other person to live up to. That’s management and not mentoring.

A mentor will guide and support the mentee to reach their individual goals and aspirations – not the goals and aspirations of the mentor. Their role also isn’t to provide stories and examples from their own life. There is an element of that, but it’s important that the information provided by the mentor is relevant to the person they are mentoring.


Great mentors don’t just talk about themselves

Some mentors can spend an entire hour talking about their own career and the choices they would make if they were in the mentees shoes. But that’s not great mentoring.

A great mentor engages with open questions to find out what the mentees challenges are and they listen at the highest possible level. There are three levels of listening.

Level I is when you listen to another person at the same time as you are also listening to your own internal dialogue, where you may for instance be considering what you need to do after the meeting and what to cook for dinner.

At level II you no longer listen to your own internal voice. You are fully focused on the other person and you listen intently to what they are saying.

But there is an even higher level, and that’s level III. At this level not only are you fully focused on the person who is speaking, you are also using your intuition to gauge what is going on for them. This is where you able to pick up if your mentee is saying one thing whilst their body language is indicating something else.

Fully listening to the mentee and asking insightful questions will help the mentor build rapport. If they fail to do so, it means that there will be very low trust between the two and that the relationship cannot be effective as less information will be shared and taken on board.

Some of the insightful questions you can ask during a mentoring conversation to better understand your mentee are as following:

  • What’s on your mind?
  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • Where would you like to be in 1, 2, 3 years time
  • What is the situation at the moment?
  • What’s holding you back?
  • How can I help?
  • What have you already tried?
  • What are your strengths?
  • Who do you need to spend more time with?
  • What was most useful to you?


As you can see most of the questions begin with what, how and who. That’s far more empowering questions than yes/no questions or those that start with why. Why-questions are great in a business context when you need someone to justify why you should invest in their idea. But in mentoring, asking why isn’t great. It makes people feel defensive and can cause them to withdraw.

Great mentors are cautious giving advice

A mentor is typically not someone who is professionally trained. People who are professionally trained tend to be coaches and therapists. There are many commonalities between coaches and mentors but there are also differences.

Both roles aim to support a person in moving forward and achieving their goals. But where the mentor has subject matter expertise, the coach’s background is often irrelevant.

Coaches rarely give advice in how to resolve a situation. Instead they will help the person unpick the situation until they clearly see the way forward themselves.

A mentor is more likely to be in a position to give his or her mentee advice because they have similar backgrounds and may even work in the same organisation. But great mentors are careful when they advise someone because they know the impact of getting it wrong. No advice is often better than bad advice!

We have talked quite a bit about the mentor but what’s the role of the mentee?

The mentee is responsible for initiating and setting up the mentoring meetings and for taking action in between sessions so that they can learn and grow.

The mentee is fully responsible for their own successes and for reaching their goals and should never expect the mentor to do the work for them.

The mentee arrives at each meeting with the topics they would like to discuss so that the mentor can be a guide and a sounding board, doing everything they can to inspire and encourage them to progress. A great mentor will never make the mentee feel guilty if he or she is not reporting back successes. Instead they will clarify the mentees goals, enquire, listen, share insights and act as a role model.

The last point that needs to be mentioned is the importance of confidentiality.

Trust will break down if the mentee finds out that the topics he shared with the mentor in confidence are now common knowledge around the office. If something comes up in conversation that does need to shared with a third-party, it must be clearly agreed with the mentee first.

Being a mentor is a great honour and mentors must treat their mentee in the way that they would like to be treated themselves. Mentors have to take their responsibility seriously and set a good example.


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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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