Management Articles


Becoming a Successful Mentor
How to Recognize the Different Ways Your People Learn

By: Dr. A. J. Schuler

Dr. A. J. Schuler is an expert in leadership and organizational change. To find out more about his programs and services, visit or call (703) 370-6545.

We hear a lot about “business mentoring” as leaders, but much of what we hear sounds so fuzzy! Still, helping people learn and guiding their growth are critical to leadership development - no “leader” can be really successful without becoming a good business mentor.

Though this is not an article about the positive approach to business mentoring, it is important to say
leaders should focus 80% of their time and attention noticing and praising successes - because that is how people will really learn what to do, and not just what not to do.
The best leaders ignore the mistakes that can be ignored, quickly correct other errors in performance without making a big deal of it, and yet spend most of their time shaping people’s efforts through praise, rather than criticism. This is a key to successful business mentoring - getting this balance right.

With that in mind, it is still necessary to understand that different people learn differently. In order to help you be successful as a business mentor, review the practical tips below so you can adapt your teaching styles and get the most from your people and their potential:

Business Mentoring Question #1: Do they like to gather information through words, and if so, what kind?

Everyone responds to the spoken word, but some people are more “doers” than listeners or readers. For those who do rely more on verbal instruction, pay attention to whether or not they like to read and digest information through a kind of independent study process. If they like to read, give them things to read that will help them grow.

If they learn best by spoken word or through discussion, then supply them with that kind of experience. Pay attention to whether or not they learn best by hearing stories and examples from you - based on your own experience - or if they respond best to thought provoking questions. Thought provoking questions can be very effective for some people, as in the classic Socratic method.

Business Mentoring Question #2: Under what conditions do they prefer to take action?

Some people want and need to have a demonstration first of something new, a hands-on way that you can show them how to do a new task. Other people prefer to jump right in, maybe after some period of observation, which can be short or long, depending on the person’s needs and learning style. Pay attention to each person’s “action style” for new tasks, and adjust your tactics accordingly.

Business Mentoring Question #3: Do they need a “hands-on” or “hands-off” instruction style?

There are some people who, through the process of mastering a new task, need to be prompted to try new things. They might not even take the initiative as confidently as some others do. Others can go on “auto-pilot,” and you can trust that they will let you know when they need to ask a question or refine their performances. Pay attention to how often you need to check in with people as they acquire new skills, and pay attention to whether or not they need you to prompt them or if they succeed best taking more of the initiative to check in for more learning.

Business Mentoring Question #4: Is the key to motivating them through the language of logic or of feeling?

This is one way to understand a person’s motivational style. Pay attention to what words people use when they describe a result that pleases them. If their basic, underlying message is that thing went “smoothly” or that the final result “made sense,” that’s a clue that they will most appreciate seeing how new lessons will “make life easier” or be more “sensible” or “logical.” Likewise, if conditions that frustrate them most are things that to them seem “stupid” or “senseless,” then this is further evidence that teaching them requires showing them lessons they get will increase efficiency.

On the other hand, if they describe good results as things that “made everyone happy,” and bad results in terms of how awful they felt, then new lessons need to be framed in terms of emotion - how they or others will “feel great” once the new way is adopted. When learning, people need to see “what’s in it for them,” so it’s the mentor’s job to get that message across in the way that best fits each person’s motivational style. Though people are usually a blend of thinking/feeling types, people usually “lead” with one more than the other - one side tends to be stronger for each of us, at least most of the time.

Business Mentoring Question #5: Do you know your own learning style, and can you broaden your approaches?

Read through these different learning styles and think about your own learning experiences. Who have been the best teachers for you, and what approaches did they take with you? Recognize that all of us tend to have the habit of assuming - without even realizing it - that others learn the way we do. Then, when they don’t respond to our attempts to teach them, it’s easy to presume that they are unwilling, resistant or just not very sharp.

We need to be able to recognize our own styles and broaden our approaches to fit the needs of those whom we lead. If the art of leadership is the art of getting things done through other people, then we have to be flexible enough to become experts on other people and their styles of learning.

Business Mentoring Question #6: Are you sure your best performers are learning lots and lots!?

Finally, learning by itself is highly motivational. People who feel that they are learning - that they are challenged - are people who are growing and who don’t have time to be negative. Leaders often make the mistake of thinking that their best performers don’t need to be challenged with new learning, but this is exactly the wrong approach!

Challenge and stimulate the strongest performers the most, since they will also grow the most - yielding the highest dividends in productivity for the organization. If you don’t, your high performers can get bored and may jump ship, leaving your team with a talent drain that reinforces long term mediocrity.

If you focus most of your attention on mentoring your weakest links, you will have weaker performance dividends for the team and accidentally place an artificial ceiling on the performance of your group -and of your top performers. So don’t be afraid to challenge people to discover their own potentials for greatness!

© Copyright (c) 2002 A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.

Other Articles by Dr. A. J. Schuler

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