Setting mentoring ground rules

One of the things I always recommend in the first newsletter of each year is to try to get a mentor. On the flip side of that is that one of the most rewarding things you can do in your professional life is to *be* a mentor to one or more people. I mentored more than 50 people back in 2015, and I think I’m going to do some more mentoring, starting in the Spring (watch the blog for details – but definitely not 50 again!).

If you’re going to be a mentor, I think it’s very important to set ground rules. One of my mentees from 2015 just sent me email saying he’s going to be mentoring this year (*so* cool to see people paying it forward!) and asking about the ground rules I set. I’ve been mentoring people for almost 20 years and I think you need to cover at least:

  • How communication will work, and expectations on both sides for how long a response may take
  • How to end the relationship
  • Which areas are fair game, and which aren’t (e.g. I wouldn’t answer SQL Server questions with the 2015 group)
  • Statement of confidentiality and trust
  • What actions will cause the relationship to end
  • How not to react to things I’ll say (e.g. I’m very blunt and honest – the whole point of a mentoring relationship is clear feedback)

That way there’s no ambiguity and you both know how things are going to work.

As an example, here’s the set of rules I sent to all my mentees to ‘ok’ before I’d move forward with them:

Lots of housekeeping, ground rules, and expectation setting in this email so PLEASE read through this email and let me know whether you’re comfortable with everything I say below. If not, for any reason, just say so (you don’t need to say why) and we’ll walk away with no hard feelings. I also need to know that you’re getting my emails. Once I hear back from you, I’ll send the kick-off part 2 email.

As I mentioned in the original blog post, I do all mentoring over email. I have two reasons for that:

It makes the whole process asynchronous, which means there’s no immediate pressure to respond and so is easier on us all. It also means we can think about responses for a week or two, and that’s especially useful as I’ve got several long trips without Internet this year.

I really don’t like talking on the phone. Phones are a necessary evil, but they don’t make for well-though-out discussions.

Once I’ve had a response from you so I know my email’s getting through, whenever I send an email out, I won’t chase you up to reply to it. If you go dark for, say, a month, I’ll assume you’re no longer interested or you’re done with mentoring. I’d appreciate a note to that effect if you decide that though, so we get a positive closure.

You can expect responses from me within a week or two. If a longer response will be delayed, I’ll let you know. If it goes more than two weeks and you haven’t heard from me about a reply, please ping me as your email might have been lost or (rarely) I might have accidentally deleted or mis-filed it.

I take all mentoring relationships seriously, and I expect you to as well. You’re going to be opening up and telling me things about yourself that you might not share/have shared with anyone else (such as hopes, failures, negatives, positives, weaknesses, strengths, work problems, family problems, whatever). Anything you tell me will remain strictly between us, and only us.

You can publicize whatever you want about the mentoring relationship and any advice I give you, unless I (rarely) tell you something is in confidence.

Do not tell me anything that is illegal or unethical (e.g. you cheated on a certification) – that will cause me to end the mentoring relationship immediately. No second chances on this. If there’s something we’re discussing that is making me uncomfortable, I’ll let you know.

I will not discuss politics or religion 1-1 through email. Sheep, diving, and electronics are fair game though :-)

We’re going to get to know each other better over the rest of this year. Feel free to Facebook friend me if you want – no pressure – I don’t care either way, but some people don’t like to presume to ask.

I will be blunt and honest with you; I don’t sugar-coat things. You’ve probably already seen that from me on Twitter and on my blog. Getting straight to the point in any discussion is the easiest way to get a point across clearly and with little or no ambiguity. Please don’t ever take anything I say to you as trying to be nasty, belittling, or destructive criticism – that’s not how I work or who I am. The whole point of a mentoring relationship is to be constructive, so please take everything I say with that in mind. If you find yourself having a hard time with that, let me know and we can work on that too. And feel free to disagree with anything I say too, you won’t offend me.

As I mentioned in the original post, this isn’t about me answering SQL Server questions for you. That’s what forums, Twitter, etc are for. Although I can help you figure out how to grow skills, this isn’t a mostly technical conversation.

This may seem like a lot of rules, but I’m very easy going. At the same time I like to have expectations set and ground rules agreed to so we all know where we stand – this is a big time investment from all of us, so it pays to get everything out in the open right at the start.

If that all sounds cool to you, let me know and I’ll send the second part of the kick off.


Feel free to use any or all of this if you’re going to be a mentor, or ask for something like this if you’re going to be a mentee.

The main thing to bear in mind is that both mentoring and being a mentee should be rewarding, and not feel like a chore or a slog. Setting some rules up front will help define the relationship and provide a clear way to end it if things aren’t going well.


9 thoughts on “Setting mentoring ground rules

  1. I was one of the 50 in 2015 and it was an incredible experience for me. This was a turning point in my young DBA career. I followed the path you created for me based off what I was looking to do and things are going very well now. I will make my speaking debut at SQLSaturday this year and have already helped out some younger people in this field. Looking forward to an Immersion class in the near future where I can thank you in person!

  2. Hi Paul ,

    Being a sole DBA is sometimes a frustrating role as you don’t get other people’s experiences, ideas and suggestions to improve your work.
    Being part of the immersion course with you and Kimberly was a great opportunity to improve my skills and I would definitely put my name down to have the experience of having yourself as a mentor.

    I’m sure whoever had the chance to be part of the 50 “students” had their careers and their approach to SQL improve exponentially!

  3. I’d love to be in the next batch Paul.

    Can I get on the list before waiting for your spring (I’m in the southern hemisphere) :-)

    I’ve emailed you a couple of times over the past 12 months, and your responses were great and much appreciated. I would love the chance to learn more from you.

  4. A greatly useful post Paul, as always! What a great subject too and I have to admit the mentoring roles/activities I have had in the workplace have always been incredibly rewarding – something I need to think about taking further, so thanks for the inspiration!!!

  5. Hi Paul,
    I love your efforts to help everyone or as many people as you can; you are always so thoughtful and clear in your article and emails. In an effort to help the people who are not selected, can I request that you post the questions or similar questions you pose to your men-tee’s so that the people not selected can start examining our thinking on these areas of our lives, career(s), purpose, etc. ?

    1. Thanks. Kind of hard to do without also providing answers, and also they’re tailored a lot to what people ask for help with. I’ve posted some over the years in our newsletter, but I don’t have a list of when I’m afraid. Maybe instead of mentoring this year, I’ll write some blog posts instead…

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