The Model for Great Mentoring

If the aim of mentoring is to nurture “mastering” — through a mentoring partnership focused on learner discovery and independence, in a climate that reduces boundaries and encourages risk — what are the steps needed to reach that aim?

Great mentoring requires four core competencies which form the sequential steps in the mentoring process. All four have been selected for their ability to blend effectively. The first letters of these competencies spell the word “SAGE” — a helpful mnemonic. They are: surrendering — leveling the learning field; accepting — creating a safe haven for risk taking; gifting — the core contributions of the mentor; and extending — nurturing protege independence.

Surrendering: Most leaders are socially conditioned to drive the process of learning, but great mentors surrender to it. Driving the process tends to cause resistance, it minimizes the potential for serendipitous growth and it tilts the focus from competence to control.

If there is one word many leaders hate, it is “surrender.” However, by surrender we don’t mean losing but instead yielding to a flow greater than either player in the process. The dictionary defines surrender as “to yield possession of.” Mentors who attempt to hold, own or control the process deprive their proteges of the freedom needed to foster discovery.

Surrendering is the process of leveling the learning field. Most mentoring relationships begin with mentor and protege in unequal power positions — boss to subordinate, master to novice or teacher to student. The risk is that power creates anxiety and anxiety minimizes risk taking — an ingredient required for growth. Surrendering encompasses all the actions the mentor takes to pull power and authority out of the mentoring relationship so the protege’s anxiety is lowered and courage is heightened.

Accepting: Accepting is the act of inclusion. Acceptance is what renowned psychologist Carl Rogers labeled “unconditional positive regard.” Most managers are taught to focus on exclusion. Exclusion is associated with preferential treatment, presumption, arrogance and insolence — all growth killers. The verb “accept,” however, implies ridding oneself of bias, preconceived judgments and human labeling. Accepting is embracing, rather than evaluating or judging.

Accepting is code for creating an egalitarian safe haven for learning. When mentors demonstrate noticeable curiosity, they telegraph acceptance. When they encourage and support, they send a message that safety abounds. Proteges need safety in the mentoring relationship to undertake experimental behavior in the face of public vulnerability.

Gifting: Gifting is the act of generosity. Gifting, as opposed to giving, means bestowing something of value upon another without expecting anything in return. Mentors have many gifts to share. When they bestow those gifts abundantly and unconditionally, they strengthen the relationship and keep it healthy. Gifting is the antithesis of taking or using manipulatively. It is at the opposite end of the spectrum from greed.

Gifting is often seen as the main event of mentoring. Mentors gift advice, feedback, focus and direction, they gift the proper balance between intervening and letting proteges test their wings, and they gift their passion for learning. However, just as we all recoil at the sound of, “Let me give you some advice,” proteges must be ready for the mentor’s gifts. Surrendering and accepting are important initial steps in creating a readiness in the protege. Gifts are wasted when they are not valued.

Extending: Extending means pushing the relationship beyond its expected boundaries. Mentors who extend are willing to give up the relationship in the interest of growth and to seek alternative ways to foster growth. They recognize that the protege’s learning can occur and be enhanced in many and mysterious ways. Extending is needed to create an independent, self-directed learner.

Surrendering, accepting, gifting and extending are required for the mentor to be an effective partner in the protege’s growth. Their sequence is important. The process of mentoring begins with surrendering and ends with extending.

Mentoring is an honor. Except for love, there is no greater gift one can give another than the gift of growth. It is a rare privilege to help another learn, have the relevant wisdom to be useful to another and partner with someone who can benefit from that wisdom.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell. He can be reached at