by Linda Phillips-Jones, Ph.D.

Mentee goals are one of the elements that hold up effective formal mentoring relationships. (Other elements include a time focus, process to follow, mentoring protocol, success measures, and other structured components.)

As IMG (International Mentoring Group) talks with mentors and mentees in a variety of places and organizations, we sense that the idea of having goals has caught on. Yet, setting the “right” goals continues to be a challenge. Fear of “doing it wrong” even stops some mentees from signing up for potentially rewarding mentoring programs.

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Have you experienced any of the following errors we’ve observed?

Common Mistakes to Avoid

1. Mentees avoid goals altogether

Not everyone is sold on the idea of goals, especially in informal mentoring relationships. We believe that avoiding goals is a tactical, potentially time-wasting error. Mentees should have tentative personal and professional goals in mind and be ready to share them with their mentors.

2. Goals are too large or ambitious

Sometimes large, amazing goals are reachable in the mentees’ timeframe (typically six months to a year with one mentor), and we don’t want to discourage mentees from thinking big. At the same time, mentors and other helpers can help mentees decide if what they say they want is desirable as well as feasible in the time available to attain it.

Here are some examples of goals that turned out to be too ambitious for the time allowed:

  • Attaining big promotions that require leap-frogging over positions usually required for later success;
  • Completing advanced degrees in unrealistic timeframes given mentees’ other responsibilities;
  • Reaching work-life balance without giving up or compromising on some wants and needs;
  • Becoming a top expert in a new and difficult technical area;
  • Figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives.

3. Goals are too limited or boring

The reverse can also happen when mentees choose goals that don’t really motivate them to work hard with their mentors. A few examples:

  • Giving a 3-minute speech. (If a mentee is brand new to public speaking or the target audience is particularly difficult, this goal might be challenging enough. If the mentee has spoken many times, however, he/she probably needs something tougher. This example may actually be an objective that’s part of a larger more appropriate goal);
  • Learning how to do one’s current job (If a mentee is brand new or really struggling with difficult tasks, this might be acceptable, although her/his immediate supervisor and colleagues should be the greatest helpers. Mentees ought to consider using their mentoring relationships to help them stretch and prepare for their next two jobs or major life moves).

4. Few relationships measure progress toward goals

Very few mentees and mentors determine how they’ll know they’ve been successful in their partnerships. Too many assume that if no one speaks up, things must be fine. In the end, many are disappointed because they didn’t hold themselves accountable to achieving measurable goals.

5. Pairs spend too much time choosing and then wordsmithing goals

Given all the reminders to set proper goals in mentoring, it’s easy to get hung up on writing a complicated, perfectly worded goal. Believe it or not, we’ve seen pairs take months to finally agree on a goal to reach because one or the other didn’t like the goal itself or its phrasing. See below for some features that can be (but don’t necessarily have to be) included in mentees’ goals.

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The business world in particular likes what are termed SMART goals. This acronym was created, we believe, by self-improvement pioneer Paul J. Meyer to describe goals that are:


For more information, do a Google search (SMART goals) and find numerous examples and resources.

Start Somewhere!

We recommend that mentees (with mentors’ help) set tentative goals fairly early in mentoring relationships, say by at least the end of the first month. Giving considered thought to goals is wise; worrying about them is a waste of time. Pairs can always fine tune, add new goals, and drop ones that don’t fit.