“There is nothing quite as important as having well-defined learning goals in a mentoring relationship. A clear, compelling goal inspires action and is indispensable to the work of mentoring in enabling growth and evaluating the ongoing success of the relationship.”

  (The Mentor’s Guide, 2012)

CaptureMentoring relationships are goal-centered partnerships. Together, mentors and mentees create a reciprocal learning relationship in which they work collaborative on achieving the mentee’s goals.  These goals light the path to career growth and personal development. For some, these goals result in increased promotability, a move up the career ladder, and new roles and projects. For others, it means focusing on a lattice goal rather than a ladder goal. In this case, development moves laterally, rather than vertically. The mentee works on expanding skills, deepening knowledge, and increasing competence within a current position. Sometimes mentoring goals focus on both lattice and ladder goals simultaneously.

Setting mentoring learning goals is one of the most daunting challenges for mentors and mentees alike. The process unfolds through conversation.

Let’s take a look at Mac’s conversation with his mentor, Gaye. Mac’s goals were anything but focused.

Gaye began the goal conversation by asking Mac about the goals he wanted to work on. Without hesitating he stated that he wanted “to feel like he was on top of things.” Gaye needed more information than that and asked him what he thought might help him become more effective. Mac heaved a sigh and blurted out, “I just wish I didn’t feel so overwhelmed right now.” Gaye paused for a moment before she commented, “Mac, I have heard other new managers express similar feelings.  I think that perhaps you might share something in common with them. Your feelings of being overwhelmed may really be a symptom of a deeper issue.  It has been my experience that when someone feels that they have too much on their plate it usually means that there are other related issues at play, like relinquishing control, trusting others and delegation. .  . or even, issues around understanding priorities and working on what really counts. And sometimes it can be a confidence thing, and you feel you have to prove yourself.   What do you think, Mac?  Do any of these issues resonate with you?”

Mac nodded his head in acknowledgement, and Gaye felt permission to probe a little further. “Mac, let’s try to get to the root of your issue, so we work on the right thing.  Do you think the issue is that you lack the confidence or is there some skill set you are missing to do your job?” Mac stared out the window before responding, “No, it’s not that, I just don’t feel like I am getting anything done.  I’m not making headway on our projects and I don’t think I am doing anything particularly well.  I go home at night feeling drained, like I have scaled a mountain, but here I am, still standing at the foot of the mountain looking up.  It’s not a good feeling… it’s just not good.”

Gaye could sense that he was frustrated and knew she needed to help him figure out what wasn’t working.  She started with some of the easier issues to tackle and asked him if time management or perhaps organizational issues were at play. Again, Mac shook his head, saying, “No, it’s not that. I am pretty organized, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.  I’m discouraged and I don’t really know where to begin.”

Gaye tried getting at the issue from a different approach. “Maybe you are working on items that aren’t producing results.  It sounds like you may be struggling with prioritizing and delegating.  Does that make sense?” 

Mac pondered Gaye’s question and then a light bulb appeared to go on and his frown vanished.  “You know, I probably don’t delegate as much as I should.  I know I want to, but I am so overworked and overwhelmed, I don’t have the time to stop to figure out what to give and to whom.  I think I do struggle with priorities.  When I have so much to do I find myself trying to get something done that I can cross off my list.”

Gaye knew the importance of clarifying and working on the right goal. She knew that without it Mac’s motivation would be low, her time would be wasted, and that there would be little, if any real progress. She had to admit that engaging in goal setting conversation was hard work, but well worth the effort.

Lesson Learned: Getting on the path to growth and development requires setting goals, but not just any goal will do.


  1. Fuzzy mentoring goals lead to fuzzy outcomes.  When goals are not specific they do not provide energy and direction.
  2. Mentoring goals need to be linked to something larger than just the goal. When goals are linked to development it creates momentum for completion.
  3. Mentoring goals should be reality-based and context-relevant. When they are not, they are merely wishes.
  4. Mentoring goals must be future-oriented. They should link to growth and development goals.
  5. Goals should require a stretch for the mentee. If goals are too easy to achieve they will be self-limiting and the mentee will never grow beyond them.