Career TipsPersonal & Professional Enrichment

Redefining Mentorship (Part 3 of 5) – What is a Great Mentor?

By Taylor Whittington & Dave Isbell

Those who have chosen to mentor someone else often report that it is more rewarding than they had initially expected. Obviously, the secret to being a great mentor, and getting the most out of the experience, is not in promoting the mentor’s self-interest. Who would want a mentor who is only in it for themselves?

So, what does it mean to be a good mentor? We spent quite a while reading through research about mentorship and what we found throughout the literature, regardless of occupation, are that there are some common ideas about what makes a good mentor.

In no particular order, here is a simplified list of the top five traits that mentees say make a great mentor:

  1. S/He will challenge you to grow both personally and professionally. A great mentor consistently pushes you outside of your comfort zone as they provide support and encouragement to take that next risk.
  2. Character matters. A great mentor will have a strong sense of their own values and morals, will conduct themselves ethically, maintain healthy relationship boundaries, and possess other admirable personal qualities such as compassion, generosity, trustworthiness, intellectual capabilities, a collaborative spirit, a vision for their work/life and passion to pour themselves into living. Above all they must be trustworthy, however being empathetic and able to provide objective advice, and constructive criticism, are among the most important skills a great mentor must have mastered.
  3. They make time for you and see that time as an investment. The best mentors are often the busiest people. However they set aside regular and consistent time periods to be with their mentees, and they maximize that time to incorporate as much relevance to their protegee’s growth and development as possible. They value the relationship and recognize that this is mutually valuable time that is spent investing in another human being who will become a part of their own legacy.
  4. They never stop learning.  They not only stay intellectually engaged in their own occupation, but they also stay on top of trends, current events, and have an attitude of curiosity toward many other interests. They can talk about nearly any subject with equal interest. They seek out advice and wisdom from others, including proteges and they aren’t afraid to test the waters when their own preconceived notions are challenged.  Further, they are constantly experimenting with new ideas, trying out some new practice, and engaging their protege’s in conversations that involve complex ideas that challenge their preconceived notions.
  5. They emit a consistently positive attitude toward their proteges.  As their proteges struggle with new ideas, learning new things, fall on their face in failure, engage in difficult life challenges, and face doubts or crisis, a great mentor continues to believe in them. They listen, empathize, and encourage their proteges onward without judgment. They support and accept the protege for who they are, even while challenging them to be a better version of themselves.

That might seem like a tall order, but think back on those mentors you had in your life. They were not perfect. They did not get all of this stuff right all of the time. However, it’s a good bet they exemplified most of it at some time!

There is a ton of research on this subject! If you are interested in reading a few of the articles we went through, here are a links to a couple of the ones that stood out to us as a good place to start:

Defining the Ideal Qualities of Mentorship: A Qualitative Analysis of the Characteristics of Outstanding Mentors

Mentoring the Mentors: Aligning Mentor and Mentee Expectations

Mentoring: From the Mentor’s Perspective


Taylor Whittington is a student employee (Professional Enrichment Assistant) in the MSUAA and is graduating in May 2018 from Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s in Social Relations & Policy/Bioethics/Science, Technology, Environment & Public Policy from James Madison College. Next fall, she plans to begin a Master’s in Public Health at that school in Ann Arbor. 

Dave Isbell is the Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment in the MSU Alumni Association and is the primary person responsible for this blog and our corresponding Twitter account. His primary role in the MSUAA is to develop online content that helps Michigan State alumni to live, work, and play better in their own communities. Dave is not able to accept individual appointments, but in developing programs and projects he does draw from his experience as a Licensed Master Social Worker and his background as a professional Career Coach since 1999. Mentorship has played a significant role in his life and he has enjoyed being both the protege and the mentor. 




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