Best and Worst Mentoring Practices

In this third and final installment of what can be learned about mentoring programs from Sun Microsystems, it’s time to summarize nearly two decades of the company’s mentoring experience into a handy best-worst practices table.


This was created by Katy Dickinson, who headed up Sun’s SEED (Sun Engineering Enrichment & Development) mentoring program for many years. Her own blog notes that the material has been among the most-requested that she has ever produced (source).

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Here’s my own paraphrasing of the Sun Microsystems best and worst mentoring practices:

Best Practices

Develop Your Listening Skills

  • There’s a reason we have TWO ears and only ONE mouth (think about it).
  • Problems can often be way more complex than you might think, so patience is required to hear things out.
  • Good listening means serving as sounding board, as opposed to being bored.
  • If you’re communicating remotely, you have to make sure to acknowledge frequently, using such techniques as paraphrasing and clarifying questions to make sure you’re receiving everything accurately.

Advising and Making Things Happen

  • Never give just one answer – it’s all about multiple options and analyzing them.
  • Teach good problem-solving skills so that your mentees can help themselves.
  • Always take time to fully discuss the potential impacts of different actions.

Maintaining Flexibility

  • If you empower your mentee to make a choice, support it.
  • When your mentee wants to change topics or goals, go with it.
  • When life happens (sickness, time off, tight deadlines, etc.) as it inevitably does, go the extra mile to re-schedule rather than just disengaging.

Providing Support

  • Regular feedback must be constructive and timely from your third-party objective perspective.
  • Create a safe space where your mentee can really vent when needed. You should be viewed as a trusted confidant.
  • Evaluate your mentee’s progress and suggest goal adjustments as needed.
  • Get your mentees to go outside their normal comfort zones by rewarding them for taking intelligent risks as well as learning from any failures encountered.

Commit to Fully Sharing Yourself

  • Meetings with your mentee have to be very regular; otherwise it’s not really mentoring.
  • The preference should always be to meet face-to-face.
  • Let your mentees know your door is always open – and keep it that way for them.
  • Help your mentees make the connection between their own goals and those of the company.
  • Networking is key. Be sure to let them into yours while you also engage in theirs.
  • Sharing is caring.

Worst Practices

Not Making Time

  • Canceling at the last minute because “something important came up” simply isn’t an option.
  • Ditto for coming late and/or leaving your meetings early.
  • Forgetting to attend is one of the more pathetic things that you can do.
  • And yes, you have to actually schedule these meetings to make them happen.

Making it All About You

  • If you’re thinking, “I’m the ME in MENTOR,” you probably shouldn’t be one.
  • Just because something worked for you doesn’t mean it will or must work for your mentee.
  • Your opinions are important, but so are those of your mentee.

Condescending to the Mentee

  • What in the world were you thinking by doing that?
  • Your inability to explain it results in my inability to do anything about it.
  • Just keep quite and do what I tell you to do.

Explaining Nothing

  • What, you don’t learn by osmosis?
  • Didn’t you see the mass email on that?
  • Resources? What resources? Oh, those Well, there they are.


  • This mentoring thing is confidential?
  • Well, I figured you wouldn’t mind my mentioning it to your supervisor…

Lack of Structure

  • Goals, shmoals. Who needs ‘em?
  • I really said I would that?
  • Hey, I’m not responsible for your job satisfaction.

When you come across a company that has the kind of deep mentoring program experience of Sun Microsystems, and one that estimates a 1,000% ROI on its mentoring programs, it makes sense to learn everything you can to obtain similar results. Go and do likewise!

December 27, 2014   Updated :March 17, 2015   employee engagement, mentor programs, mentoring, retention, talent management   

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