June 27, 2017 Mentoring

Lessons I’ve Learned as a Mentor and Mentee

Richard C. Goodwin

Whether we are a parent, grandparent, relative, friend, leader, follower, supervisor, supervised, Scoutmaster, lawyer and/or judge, we all mentor to some extent and in one form or another. Being a mentor is an honor and privilege which carries responsibilities for the mentor and mentee. Everyone has their own approach. These are some of the lessons I learned on my life’s travels by being both a mentor and mentee.

Set Clear Expectations

Let the mentee know what your expectations are in terms of the scope and duration of whatever you ask them to do. If there is a deadline, make sure it is clearly set.  Have the mentee repeat back to you what you have said, including the scope, details, and deadlines. This ensures the mentee understood what you told them and you were clear in your delivery.

If you want a scout to bring two dozen hot dogs for the camping trip, tell them so and have them repeat it. Do not assume the scout knows the responsibility may also include the need to bring buns.

Set the Standard

Be clear, precise and detailed in your expectations. If the project is open-ended make that clear. Two of my favorite supervisors would have a staff meeting, go over the plans for the period of time in question, get everyone’s input, and then seemingly disappear. It took me some time to realize they had set out what they wanted to be accomplished and the parameters of the task(s), got the staff to buy into the goals, then got out of the way – sometimes by leaving the office – to allow the staff to get their job done. It is amazing what people can accomplish when they buy into your goals and you empower them by leaving them along to do the job.

Adhere to Your Own Standard

Being a mentor is not an excuse to sit around and tell others what they should do. As chief judge, I did not take a reduced caseload. I felt being a supervisor was a privilege and I should maintain the same caseload as my colleagues. I would not take a case I would not ask a colleague to take. I would not take a docket I would not ask a colleague to take.

As an officer I did the same thing: I tried never to assign a task I would not do myself, including digging trenches and filling sandbags in the DMZ in Korea.

Set the standard and follow it.

Open Door

You should always have an open door to your "office." A closed door is a loud message to "stay away," "don’t bother me," and "leave me alone." You want mentees to always feel they can talk to you. An open door tells people you are available when they need you. Every successful mentor I ever worked with always had an open door policy and – unless they already were busy – would drop what they were doing whenever I walked in.

An open door goes beyond just sitting in your office with the door open, it also means walking around the office, chatting with everyone.

I worked in an office where the office manager made a point of walking around the office every day, talking to everyone in the office. The employees [mentees] always knew she was available to talk and cared about the job they were doing.

Keeping an open door policy allows you to be aware of what is going on around you. We all have times when we need to have quiet time, have meetings and/or phone calls which require confidentiality. At those times keep your door closed. Otherwise, keep your door open. You can head off most problems by keeping your door open, making yourself available and talking to mentees.

Allow People to Fail

Probably the hardest thing to do as a mentor is allowing mentees to fail. If you set the parameters and they are not met, then the mentee learns by failing.

As a Scoutmaster, we were on a camporee with other troops. Everyone was given the task of building a campfire. My Scouts attempted to build a fire by committee. The result was non-stop suggestions, start, restart, no direction, no one in charge, constant changes to the plan and more suggestions. We never got the fire going and lost the competition.

Then the Scouts learned how to properly build a fire (think pyramid with small stuff on the bottom). On the next camping trip, almost every Scout was able to make a fire with minimal effort. They learned by failing and making mistakes, lessons they quickly learned, shortcomings they quickly corrected, and experiences they never forgot.


Interact with your mentees as often as possible. Too many people think the most important part of mentoring is talking. My experience is just the opposite. If you do all the talking, the mentee learns nothing and will probably come to dread your visit. Listening to those you mentor gives them the opportunity to share their insight and thought process. Make suggestions (especially when asked), suggest alternatives, and shepherd them along the path to success.

Leave some questions unanswered so the mentee can find their own solution.

When you do all the talking, no information is exchanged, you may not understand and/or realize what the real issue is, and ultimately you both end up spinning wheels.


After letting them fail, patience is probably the next hardest thing to master. Learning can be a hard thing to do. I remember in elementary school trying to master the “times tables,” which my father (with a Ph.D. in physics) was trying get me to understand. After many tearful nights, all of a sudden a light bulb went on and I got it. Later in my college physics class, I was having trouble with one area. Many phone calls home and I aced the course.
But for my dad’s patience, who knows where I would be?


It is easy to pick out the errors of our mentees. We sometimes forget to compliment them when they do a job that we may consider routine.
As judges, we are always expressing our views in various pleadings. What we sometimes fail to do is acknowledge those who help us with those legal matters. One person in a supervisory position I know, when a decision is published, always acknowledges the attorney who helped the judge on the case. We all know the judge is responsible and his/her name is on the decision. I have worked with some great attorneys and clerical staff and always acknowledge their contributions in an email or other forms.

Complimenting your mentee will go along to reinforce your standards and show them how they are improving and being appreciated. Even when something is not done to your standards, you can criticize and compliment at the same time. Be suggestive in your criticism rather than derisive. You want the message to be received, not rejected because of the tone of delivery.
I always tried to wish my staff a good holiday, weekend, birthdays, anniversaries, or vacations. Mentees are not numbers – they are people and appreciate being acknowledged.


Accept only the best but be sure to let your mentee know that they can do it. The more you reinforce the mentee’s self-confidence, the better the results for them and the satisfaction for you.
"I trust your instincts" and "I know you can do it" – statements go a long way to developing character.

Challenge the Mentee

Give them different responsibilities or different portions of the task. If they master something, add responsibilities. If they master small steps, the bigger steps will come naturally by progression.

I had a paralegal I knew was capable of more than she believed she was capable of. I had an easy case to decide, handed her the file and told her to write a decision. She asked what the decision should be. I said figure it out, I will sign what you write, if it is remanded, you will do it again.
She did a marvelous job and proved to herself she really was as good as I knew she was.

Set the Standard and Follow It

Again, set the standard. Last December my children and grandchildren wanted to go zip-lining in St. Thomas. So I figured I better set the standard. So at 75 years of age, I went zip-lining with my grandchildren and have the videos to prove it!

Keep Learning

It is never too late to acquire new mentoring skills. Talk with colleagues, mentees other mentors. Processes evolve, and so should you..


Each mentor is different; each mentee is different. Be flexible. Work to the mentee’s strengths and help them overcome their weaknesses.


Now that you have set your standards, had the mentee repeat them, encouraged them, explained to them that you know you can do it, implement and GET OUT OF THE WAY.