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Show Them You Care – Maintaining a Mentoring Relationship in the Long-Term

Part 3 of a 4 Part Series – Part 1Part 2  – Part 4

BY Bruce Tulgan

When I say, “care about your employees,” I’m not saying you need to love your employees as if they are your own children or let them come live in your basement. But as their mentor, you may need to usher them through these early stages of their working lives and into the next. Help them make the transition.

Don’t be alarmed. You don’t need to relate to this person’s deep inside thoughts, feelings, and spirit, or even inner motives. In my view, you shouldn’t even try unless you are a trained therapist, or spiritual leader. Just care enough to help this person succeed at work, at least whenever this person is working for you. One Millennial recently told me: “I need to work for people who know who I am and what I’m doing, and who seem to care. I’ve had bosses who didn’t even know my name. But right now I’m working for this woman who is very busy, but she really connects with me, eye-to-eye kind of, asks me questions and really listens. She’s taught me a lot already.”

How do you connect with your new young protégés? First, you have to get to know them as individuals.

Get to Know Them
I don’t mean you should learn what’s going on in each employee’s personal life. Get to know the self your protégé brings to work. You need to know who they are at work and what they are doing at any given time:

  • What is their schedule at work?
  • What are their main tasks every day?
  • What are all of their other projects?
  • Where do they sit at work? Do they travel? Where?
  • Are they generally a high performer, low performer, or somewhere in the middle?
  • Are they generally a fast worker, slow worker, or somewhere in the middle?
  • Do they usually get all or most of the details right, or not?
  • Are they generally a positive influence on colleagues? Negative? Neutral?
  • What is their reputation among their coworkers?
  • How long are they likely to stay? Is there a chance they will stay for the long term?

The only way to learn all this information about a new employee is to spend time with him or her one-on-one on a regular basis – helping that person succeed. Of course, some people require more attention than others. But they all need your one-on-one attention. The best way to demonstrate that you care about your protégé’s success at work is to invest your own time in helping that person succeed.

Invest the Right Amount of Time with Your Protégé
Often mentors ask me, “How can I possibly spend meaningful time with my protégé, get to know them, and keep track of what they’re doing all at the same time?” The answer depends on how many people you manage, formally or informally, at work. I think you can get to know, tune into, and connect in a meaningful way with as many as fifteen or twenty direct reports. If you have more than twenty direct reports, you’ll have to be selective. But don’t make the mistake of spending all your management time on any “problem employees” that might be under your wing. Be strategic. Focus on managers first. Anybody you manage who is managing other people should be your first priority. Second, focus on employees whose work cannot go wrong without great cost or injury to themselves or others – anybody whose work is particularly high stakes, high impact, or dangerous. Third, choose one or two people each day to spend whatever time you have left. I recommend picking one person from the high end (your star protégé), and one from the low end (one “problem” employee.) Work your way to the middle of the pack until you have met with everyone one-on-one that week, or every two weeks. Then start over and work your way through the list again.

Don’t let your one-on-one time with any one person become long and convoluted, including your protégé. You don’t have to shoot the breeze. You don’t have time to have intense, deep, personal conversations. Keep your one-on-ones relatively brief and focused on preparing the individual for his or her immediate work of the day, week, or month. Help prepare them for the work at hand. Remember, you don’t need to show your protégés that you care about them deep inside, only that you care enough about them to spend time setting them up for success.

As you get to know your protégé, you’ll have to fine-tune your approach in every conversation. But start each conversation with these questions: “How are you? What is your top-priority assignment right now? What steps are you following? What steps are you on right now? What can I do to help you?” Listen carefully. Then try to wrap up each conversation with some concrete actionable advice.

“I try to have a particular goal that I’m working toward with every person,” said a manager in a major engineering firm. “Every person is a different situation. With one person, I’m always trying to move her along on a particular matter, finishing up one step and moving on to the next. With another person, I try to help him slow down and pay attention to the details. With another person it might be ‘tuck in your shirt,’ ‘come to work on time,’ ‘stop talking on the phone all the time.’ But I’m always working toward a particular goal with every person, and they know I really care about their success.”

Over time, it will become easier and easier to fine-tune your conversations with your protégé to focus on what they want to achieve at any given time, and of course this will shift over time! But as long as you continue your regular, highly-engaged, one-on-one dialogue with that person, you will be able to address their wants and needs every step of the way.


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website