Why give a damn:

Extreme deliberation goes into most ventures, but not so when it comes to mentoring. How can we create more effective mentors?


The author of this post, Cheryl Heller, designs change and growth for business leaders and social entrepreneurs. She is Founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA.


Doctors have internships, teachers get training, so do chefs and airline pilots. But mentors? We shoot from the hip, offering guidance to fellows in one hour bursts of insights inspired by what they need at the time.

In the graduate program I chair, extreme deliberation goes into learning objectives, outcomes and pedagogy. But mentors? We fly in and give advice with rarely a conversation about how it aligns with, contradicts or deflates what they’re hearing from other experts. Those of us who have been at this for a while have a thought or two about how we might be better, and what it would take; from mentors, fellows and the organizations we help.

We shoot from the hip, offering guidance in one hour bursts of insights

Last year at Unreasonable Institute, I mentioned to Banks that we should make an opportunity for mentors to gather, to talk about what we see, what we’ve learned and how we can be better at helping to accelerate the best enterprises.

So I repeat, is that an unreasonable request? Lemme know.

About the author

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

  • ghilonipt09

    I think mentoring is always the key to being a leader in society. If you become a mentor I think one will have a very successful life overall. I think some sub skills you have to have in being a mentor is listening skills, organization, and high energy at all times. I believe having a positive attitude is the key ingredient though. What do you believe a mentor can do to help an individual who is struggling?

  • Cory Zaeske

    I am also a mentor and I completely agree. You never know what questions you are going to get as a mentor but I think that mentors are true leaders. They do everything on the fly and that takes talent. It also preps you for future careers. Has there ever been a time when you were stumped by a question from one of your mentees? If so did you find a way around it?

  • strakaJA01

    As a person that has many mentors and is a mentor myself, I agree with what you are saying. I think that it is important for mentors to stay educated about topics they are giving mentees advice on. Mentors should be talking with other mentors and swapping ideas with each other. I like it when my mentors can give me a variety of information from different sources when giving advice. Then I know that my mentor isn’t just giving me solely their opinion. What do you do as a mentor to keep yourself “in the loop”? Thank you!

  • KevinThomson32

    I think mentors should know the knowledge of the subject very well before preaching about it. Mentors need to bounce ideas off of each other to better understand what is going on. Also have proof to back up their idea. Great article!

  • Zach Perkins

    I think this is definitely a fair request. I will be interning for strength and conditioning at a University over the summer. One of the reasons I chose the University I did was because of the person who will be my “mentor”. He has vast experience in the field and is very well respected across the board. So, does experience give mentors the credibility to do their job? If they are experienced and well qualified and recommended, then I don’t think that they necessarily need to be trained.

  • WolfgramKA06

    You make a great point. Sometimes, just because certain people are mentors and have the experience, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are that valuable to you depending on how well you work in certain situations and environments. I have had great mentors and not-so-great mentors, so I think it depends on who you choose and how you learn from them. Do you think that different mentors suit better with certain people depending on how they learn or teach?

  • ghilonipt09

    Yes this is very true mentors do need to have absence of the information they are talking about but I think mentors need to have an understanding of the peers they are teaching if it younger or older they are mentoring too. I think physical experience helps mentors mentor other individuals. Thank you for writing this article. What can you do to be a better mentor in he community?

  • Jennifer Lynn

    This is a short but very informational article! We all have people who “mentor” us but do we ever really recognize the amount of training they had to endure to be a mentor. I know I never really thought about it. How many college students actually think the people who are guiding them down what they think is the correct path hasn’t had much training to be the mentor they are supposed to be. DO you think the people we look to as mentors need certain training?

  • Tammy Hartmann

    I wrote in my notes how I wished there were some kind of leadership mentor hotline to help people bounce ideas off each other, stretch their minds, and expand on their ideas. I often feel stuck after my ideas start to flow, and have very simple questions that wouldn’t require in-depth dialogue. Such a hotline would serve this purpose greatly; do you think this would even be a workable idea? Maybe I should revisit my notes and start working on something like this idea. Thank you for the article and the post.

  • kyle055

    Today’s challenges of starting a new business or organization is predicting the future of things related to their start up. But because it may be new or not that common, they have a hard time knowing what direction to go. As one entrepreneur told me, “every business plan can work”, but not everyone sticks to their business plan and sometimes things change and then they may not know what to do next. But just like mentors, they too had to deal with unknowingly situations occurring and all you can do is to decide what to do and go for it. Mentors have gone through experiences like doctors practice on patients. We just look up to those that have succeeded because we count those as “the good ones”. Best thing to do, is network and find out from others experiences to build a toolbox for what works for you while keeping up to date and refreshing history lessons to correlate what works best in certain situations.

  • Jonathan

    Anyone can be a mentor, and its usually something that just happens. Mentors usually just need to be honest and speak cautiously. A hotline full of advice wouldn’t just benefit the mentor but the mentee as well.

  • EliabethHart

    This is a great request. Mentors need other mentors. They need collaboration. They need to be able to provide the best advice and bounce off of one another. I work as a youth advocate in New York City and OMH and NAMI have support programs for us to help guide us in our job. I have experienced learning from one another and learning from leaders in the field. This has made me better at helping others, and moving forward in my own life and my own pursuits. Support and collaboration can go a very long way. It helps us learn, be less stressed, help others and help ourselves!

  • dsilver4

    While mentors don’t always receive credit for their intuitive assistance, the benefit of knowing that you can help so many people achieve their goals is pretty amazing.

  • KLChristianson

    I’m not convinced that certain training should be required as certainly some people do have a natural knack for mentoring. However, like any skill that someone can be naturally excel (or struggle) with, there is always room for improvement. I think it would be quite valuable for all who are officially designated as mentors to have a minimum requirement of meeting as mentors in order to discuss experiences and learn from each other. Those who are naturally good at it have a lot to offer, and through sharing with others can reaffirm best practices. I was thrust into a mentor role prematurely and wish I had the opportunity to learn from experienced mentors.

  • Zintia Martinez

    I think mentors should receive training as well. You do not want your mentee to think you do not even know what is going in on and how to advise them. Also, mentees need trainings. It is important for them to know what kind of questions or what information is essential to share when meeting with their mentors. I recently talk to two co-workers who are part of a mentor program just for women. Once of them was telling that she did not what to share or ask her mentor. She has not idea how the program work. Since they do not know each other I think both need a good training and also give examples and bring people whom have experienced the same situation. This could be a course before joining a mentor program.

  • Carly Konkol

    I totally agree with you EliabethHart! Not one person on this planet has all the knowledge of the world. Everyone needs help at some point in their lives and they should be encouraged to reach out and ask for that help. On a smaller scale, a lot of my friends come to me for advice about rough patches in their lives and I know that I can do the same when I need someone to lean on. Just because I give away a lot of advice, doesn’t meant I have all of the answers. Collaboration leads to positive ineractions, resulting in changes and learning.

  • knapprl17

    I never really thought about it, that mentors do not get training. Mentors just jump into a situation and try to help people based on previous experiences they have had in their life. I think it would be beneficial for people to get a little training on how to be a mentor, but I also think it would be difficult to do that because it is based on previous experiences you have had.

  • mrmanuz

    Education cannot be a one-way street. Mentors must adapt and evolve as much as the material that students need to learn. This keeps the relationship between mentor and student smooth. This also creates a medium to deliver new material to veteran workers without tension forming.

  • Abbey Stibbs

    I think that mentors need training. I used to be a peer mentor at my college, and if I did not receive eight week training that I did, I do not think that I would have been able to do my job, and do it successfully. I think that it is important for any profession to get training regardless of what it is. I don’t think that you can do your job successfully without adequate education and training. If training did not happen for some occupations, I feel like the entire world would crumble into tiny pieces because nobody would know what they were doing. I think that being a mentor is just as important as being a doctor or a lawyer, and they deserve the same amount of training and education as the next person.

  • Ashley Nicole Rietbrock

    Thank Cheryl for sharing this article with us. I thought it was interesting. I feel that mentor should receiving training a well. You would want your mentors to know what they are talking about. Also, want to know that they had training from people that are highly knowledgeable and trained there mentors as if they where the one’s who wanted to be a mentor for. They at school where I attend do mentor training to know what is going on for the couple of days and what to aspect. Where ever you get a job you have to get trained to do that job and being a mentor is a job a well so that why I think they need to be trained as well. Thank you again for sharing this article with us.

  • GSonDUBS

    Everyone can use a mentor. I would love to see a program in different cities providing mentor services (on their expertise) for others. Almost like a Toastmasters club, but for entrepreneurs.

  • hansends21

    I completely agree. There is nothing than having the person your supposed to be looking up to, have no clue what they are talking about. I have experienced that before, it is extremely frustrating. Training is most definitely necessary.

  • gaulrappkj17

    Everyone needs a mentor. It is a kick start to almost anything in life, and it gives us something to go on, a kind of foundation. I think that regardless of where you are in your life, it is always good to have someone there to talk to and for us to listen to what needs to be said. I think this is also good for when people are lacking in a lot of life experience. You will learn so much from a mentor, it is kind of a no brainer.

  • Thomas Miller

    I think training should be available for any type of professional, regardless of what they do. Training would allow mentors to give their mentees the best possible information that is available to them

  • Thomas Miller

    I agree. Having the services of a mentor for your company could only have positive effects, provided that the mentor knows what they’re talking about.

  • Thomas Miller

    That’s why i think that mentorship services should be provided, coupled with continuous improvement training for the mentors who will be providing the mentorship services. A mentor could help start things off smoothly and then continue to advise the student as they continue to work together.

  • Kaylie Mae Kuhnke

    agree with you completely. you need someone who will guide you but its no help if they dont know what the frank they are talking about.

  • Kaylie Mae Kuhnke

    i think its important to have the right people be mentors some people are born with the gift to guide others through difficult times in their lives others not so much. as a freshman i was on a sports team and we had upper classmates as mentors to help us settle in to college sports. my mentor made it a habit to have our meetings at parties where she got completely wasted and didn’t teach me a thing except dont get in trouble which she did alot. so my freshman year i was completely lost because i had no really guidance from someone. some people need guidelines on what is something to teach a men-tee and what is not okay.

  • Will Ettl

    I agree with you. Training can benefit everyone no matter what level they are at. Even some experts can for sure benefit from learning and going back and training so they can learn new ways or even perfect their own way.

  • Colin Hickey

    I agree that everyone needs a mentor, but mentors should learn from each other as well. If my mentor learned from 100 other mentors, then I have a mentor who has a lot of knowledge that could lead me to a better decision. If my mentor has never discussed their experiences with other mentors, then my mentor might not always give the best advice.