The 5 Steps Tim Gunn Uses to Mentor and Build Up Talent (and You Should Too)

October 3, 2017

Tim Gunn’s catchphrase from Project Runway, “make it work,” captures his style as a mentor: blunt, pragmatic, optimistic, and empowering.

Whether you’re critiquing a contestant, instructing a hiring manager, or giving a candidate feedback, effective mentoring is an invaluable skill—and it’s one that Tim has honed over his entire career. Before he became a world-famous fashion icon as the host of Project Runway, Tim spent nearly 30 years mentoring as a teacher at Parsons School of Design.

At Talent Connect 2017, Tim offered teaching tips that anyone can use to be a better mentor. He shared his own mentoring philosophy in the form of five principles represented by the acronym T.E.A.C.H.

T is for truth-telling: Be brutally honest, but only when it’s actually useful

If you’ve seen one episode of Project Runway, you know that Tim is not one to pull any punches. If someone’s work looks like trash, he’ll say so. He doesn’t do it for any Simon Cowell shock effect—he does it because it’s helpful, even when it hurts.

We often think we’re being nice by telling a half-truth or sugar-coating a harsh critique, but we’re really just making it harder for the student to see their fault. Calling someone out can be uncomfortable for the mentor and the mentee, but avoiding that discomfort is ultimately a disservice—you’re denying the student an opportunity to grow.

Tim was quick to add, however, that he doesn’t actually tell the truth about everything: he’s only brutally honest about things that a student can actually change. If there’s nothing they can do about the fault, there’s simply no use in pointing it out.

E is for empathy: Put yourself in the shoes of the student, and adjust your advice accordingly

While Tim believes that honesty is one of greatest gift a mentor can give, that doesn’t mean he serves it up completely unvarnished. It’s just as important to deliver the message the right way, understanding how the other person will experience your feedback.

To practice empathy, Tim always goes through a quick self-check before giving someone a critique.

He first thinks of exactly what he wants to say, imagines himself as the student, and asks himself how that feedback would make him feel—and how he’d respond. If he imagines that he’d take it poorly or respond defensively, he goes back and tweaks the way he’d say it.

“As mentors, we need to remember what it was like to be mentored,” Tim writes in his latest book. “We need to think about all the great—and lousy and so-so—teachers we had and what it was like to be around them and try to be on the side of right.”

A is for asking: Turn questions around to get students to the right conclusion themselves

If you just hand the right answer over on a silver platter, your student isn’t learning much. For them to make real progress—i.e., being able to do it without you—they need to struggle through the problem and get to the right answer in their own way. “We are not mother birds dropping worms into their mouths,” Tim says in his book. “We are there to prod them into realizing things on their own.”

That’s why Tim will often ask questions instead of giving answers. If a student asks him something, he’ll turn the question around—he calls it, “the single-best teacher trick I ever learned.

If someone asks you whether their InMail sounds too generic—and it does sound too generic—try asking them the exact same question: “Do you think it sounds too generic?” Tim says that 90% of the time, the student will answer the exact same way that Tim would have.

Not only is this far more memorable, but it gives the student the confidence that they can come to right conclusions all by themselves.

C is for cheerleading: Celebrate victories, offer real support, and take responsibility

Tim’s second most-famous Project Runway catchphrase is “You can do it! Go, go, go!” He’s there cheering on every contestant, without ever favoring one over the other. His empathy isn’t just tactical—it’s genuine. He really wants to see everyone succeed, and that means taking some responsibility for their performance.

Tim talked about how bad he feels when teachers complain about their students or predict their failure from the start. “At some point, that burden is on you as a teacher,” he writes. On a lighter note, Tim says he has the same reaction when friends complain that all their dates are terrible in bed. “What’s the common denominator...?” he asks. “You need to take some responsibility for your own experience of those other people.”

If you find yourself being fatalistic or blaming your trainee, remind yourself that you deserve part of that blame, too. Celebrate their successes and really believe in their potential—and in your own potential as a mentor.

H is for hoping for the best: Know when to let go

While you do share responsibility for your student’s success, that doesn’t mean you should stick around to share the credit. Particularly in creative endeavors, it’s ultimately up to the student to make their own decisions—at a certain point, all you can do is hope for the best.

“The people we teach become repositories for our fondest hopes, and it can be hard to watch them stroll off into an uncertain future,” Tim writes. “We need to let people go and do what they’re going to do without taking it personally.” If you’re mentoring a junior colleague, don’t be upset if they do things differently: the point of mentoring isn’t to create an exact copy of yourself, it’s to help someone else become who they are.

TEACHing with style

Talent professionals act as teachers in moments big and small, from showing the junior employee the ropes to helping an unhired applicant walk away with constructive criticism. We can’t all do it with the style and grace of Tim Gunn, but we can all do our best to make it work.