Mentoring: The Art of Panning for Insight

Adapted from “Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning” by Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith, (SF: Berrett-Koehler Publishing, 2013).

By Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith

Panning for gold is a lot like mentoring. It is not always easy. Panning for gold works like this. First, you put a double handful of sand in a heavy-gauge steel shallow pan and dip it in the water, filling it half full of water. Next, you gently move the pan back and forth as you let small amounts of yellow sand wash over the side of the pan.

The objective is to let the black sand sink to the bottom of the gold pan. But this is the point where panning for gold gets real serious. Impatience or strong-arming the way the pan is shaken means the black sand escapes over the side along with the yellow sand. Once black sand is the only sand left in the pan, you are rewarded with flecks of gold. The gold resides among the black sand.

Mentoring can be like panning for gold among the sand. Insight is generally not lying on top ready to be found and polished. If it were easy pickings, the help of a mentor would be unnecessary. It lies beneath the obvious and ordinary. It is lodged in the dark sands of irrational beliefs, myths, fears, prejudices, and biases. It lurks under untested hunches, ill-prepared starts, and unfortunate mistakes. Helping the protégé extract insight takes patience and persistence. It cannot be rushed and haphazardly forced. And, most of all, it cannot be strong-armed with the force of the mentor. It must be discovered by the protégé with the guidance of the mentor.

As a mentor, you are in charge of getting the protégé to properly shake the pan. You help the protégé learn to recognize the real treasures of insight and understanding and not be seduced by “fool’s gold”—achieved by rote and temporarily retained only “until the exam is over.” The way you help the protégé handle the dark sand is central to the acquisition of wisdom. That is the essence of mentoring with a partnership philosophy.

What is the nature of your responsibility? The whole concept of mentor has had a checkered path in the world of work. The most typical mental image has been that of a seasoned corporate sage conversing with a naïve, wet-behind-the-ears young recruit. The conversation probably would have been laced with informal rules, closely guarded secrets, and “I remember back in ’77 . . .” stories of daredevil heroics and too-close-to-call tactics. And work-based mentoring has had an almost heady, academic sound, reserved solely for workers in white collars whose fathers advised, “Get to know ol’ Charlie.”

But what are the role and responsibility of mentoring, really? When the package is unwrapped and the politically correct is scraped away, what’s left? A mentor is defined in the dictionary as “a wise, trusted advisor . . . a teacher or coach.” Such a simple definition communicates a plain-vanilla context. Mentoring is defined as that part of the leader’s role that has learning as its primary outcome. Bottom line, a mentor is simply someone who helps someone else learn something that otherwise would have been learned less well, more slowly, or not at all. Notice the power-free nature of this definition; mentors are not power figures.

The word, “mentor,” comes from “The Odyssey,”written by Greek poet Homer. As Odysseus (Ulysses, in the Latin translation) is preparing to go fight in the Trojan War, he realizes he is leaving behind his one and only heir, Telemachus. Since “Telie” (as he probably was known to his buddies) is in junior high, and since wars tended to drag on for years (the Trojan War lasted 10), Odysseus recognizes that Telie needs to be coached on how to “king” while Daddy is off fighting. He hires a trusted family friend named Mentor to be Telie’s tutor. Mentor is both wise and sensitive—two important ingredients of world-class mentoring.

The history of the word, “mentor,” is instructive for several reasons. First, it underscores the legacy nature of mentoring. Like Odysseus, great leaders strive to leave behind a benefaction of added value. Second, Mentor (the old man) combined the wisdom of experience with the sensitivity of a fawn in his attempts to convey kinging skills to young Telemachus. We all know the challenge of conveying our hard-won wisdom to another without resistance. The successful mentor is able to circumvent resistance.

Homer characterizes Mentor as a family friend. The symbolism contained in this relationship is apropos to contemporary mentors. Effective mentors are like friends in that their goal is to create a safe context for growth. They are also like family in that their focus is to offer an unconditional, faithful acceptance of the protégé. Friends work to add and multiply, not subtract. Family members care, even in the face of mistakes and errors.

Superior mentors know how adults learn. Operating out of their intuition or on what they have learned from books, classes, or other mentors, the best mentors recognize that they are, first and foremost, facilitators and catalysts in a process of discovery and insight. They know that mentoring is not about smart comments, eloquent lectures, or clever quips. Mentors practice their skills with a combination of never-ending compassion, crystal-clear communication, and a sincere joy in the role of being a helper along a journey toward mastery.

Just like the first practitioner of their craft, mentors love learning, not teaching. They treasure sharing rather than showing off, giving rather than boasting. Great mentors are not only devoted fans of their protégés; they are loyal fans of the dream of what their protégés can become with their guidance.

Adapted from “Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning” by Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith, (SF: Berrett-Koehler Publishing, 2013). For more information, visit

Chip R. Bell is senior partner with the Chip Bell Group and former director of management and organization development for NCNB (now Bank of America). A keynote speaker and trainer, he is the author or coauthor of several best-selling books, including “Wired and Dangerous” (with John Patterson) and “Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service” (with the late Ron Zemke).

Marshall Goldsmith recently was recognized as the No. 1 leadership thinker in the world by Harvard Business Review.He is the author, coauthor, or editor of 34 books, including New York Timesand Wall Street Journalbestsellers “Mojo” and “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” His books have been translated into 28 languages and become bestsellers in eight countries.

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