For an employee to learn and take steps toward improvement, he or she must first accept and embrace the need for a mentor, teacher, or guide. This step is difficult for many learners, for various reasons. Learners value their independence and want the freedom to choose different teachers, or learning paths at any time. Many employees simply do not want to admit that they need help.

Nevertheless, if we observe those who have excelled in any field – artistic, scientific, athletic or spiritual, to name a few – without exception they have all relied on a highly skilled guide, teacher, coach, or mentor.

Paraphrasing Dr. Jacqueline P. Leighton of the University of Alberta:

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Mentorship is critically important in helping ensure that students develop into excellent learners. These can be mentors, role models, or simply teachers. Whatever you call them, they directly help students understand what they need to do to achieve a higher level of learning and performance. Ivan Galamian, famous violin teacher, made the following statement about mentors:

“If we analyze the development of the well-known artist, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent upon the quality of their practicing. In practically each case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by a teacher or an assistant to the teacher…”

Mentors, teachers, or guides must be more knowledgeable about the student’s field of study than the student. Mentors must be able to help the student achieve a greater level of learning and performance by providing accurate and detailed feedback. The feedback must be specific about the ways in which the students can improve his or her performance. Many extraordinary minds recollect the decisive role mentors had in their development of expertise. Not only do mentors teach directly and help students reduce the gap between their current level of performance and their desired level of performance, but they also inspire, motivate, and support.

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So what should you look for when identifying mentors, guides, or teachers within or outside your organization? Here are a few characteristics of what I would consider the ideal teacher or guide in any field. He or she is:

  • Delighted to be teaching or mentoring
  • Wise, calm, focused and disciplined
  • Very skilled in providing instructions
  • Sincerely interested in benefiting you, and others
  • Knowledgeable in your chosen field—and probably more knowledgeable than you

Of course, not all mentors will possess each of these qualities or they may not be apparent right away. I suggest that if you are not so fortunate to find someone with all of these characteristics that you seek a mentor with at least three.

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