Mentoring 102: Getting the Most from a Mentor (and a Mentee)

by Nancy Ordman

Mentoring requires an investment of time and thought for both the mentor and the mentee. Each participant should expect to benefit from this investment; organizations that support formal mentoring do so because they see positive returns.

A satisfying and successful mentorship starts with a good match between mentor and mentee, continues with setting realistic

Source: Pixabay / CC0

goals, expectations and boundaries, and progresses with thoughtful attention and nurturing. Formal programs provide guidance — and sometimes training — to mentoring participants. 

How to be a Successful Mentee

Before seeking out a mentor, a prospective mentee needs to decide why they feel the need for a mentor. A new college graduate starting their first professional job has different needs than they will several years down the road, when they could be considering moving into management or changing career directions. The mentorship’s purpose informs decisions about choice of mentors, length of mentorship, problems and questions to explore, and so forth.

Here are some ideas for crafting a fruitful mentorship once the “why” is nailed down.

  • Choose a mentor carefully. Research suggests that mentor and mentee should already have a basic relationship and rapport before engaging in a formal mentorship. In some organizations, Human Resources matches mentors and mentees. If a relationship is not satisfactory to both parties, either can ask HR for a reassignment.
  • Understand what the mentor will and will not do. Most mentorship relationships are not intended for short-term problem-solving or for gaining an advantage based on the mentor’s position within the organization.
  • Establish structure. Set goals and expectations up front and agree on a meeting agenda. Decide how long the arrangement will last. Arrange a contact schedule and decide whether meetings will be in person, by phone or Skype and set a time limit.
  • Listen. Be open to coaching. Apply the mentor’s guidance and follow through on assignments.
  • Express — and demonstrate — appreciation for the mentor’s time, advice, and support. This includes applying guidance and following through on assignments.
  • Maintain confidentiality. This encomium speaks for itself.
  • Be human. Share fears. Talk about struggles and doubts. The mentoring relationship is a safe haven for discussing vulnerabilities that the mentee does not want to share with a manager or colleagues.

How to be a Successful Mentor

Many people want to be mentors to pay forward the benefits from their own mentors. This admirable motivation is not sufficient to ensure a successful relationship with a mentee. Most of the advice for mentees applies equally well to mentors: choose a mentee carefully, create structure and goals, listen, and, above all, be human. Following is advice specific for mentors.

  • Commit to the relationship and the process. Come prepared to each meeting and do not cancel for less than an emergency.
  • Demonstrate genuine interest in the mentee and the desire to build a relationship that is built on respect and honesty.  
  • Communicate clearly and effectively. All the work experience in the world is useless if the mentor cannot convey lessons learned from this experience.
  • Communicate with candor — and diplomacy. Understand what the mentee needs, even if that need is not clearly expressed. Provide useful feedback even if the mentee might find it difficult to hear.
  • Keep current with industry news and current events. Good employees — and leaders — are lifelong learners, and a good mentor models this behavior. 

Professional literature in business and in engineering and science provides more in-depth suggestions and models for building successful mentoring relationships. Links to a few of these are below. 

A Guide to Understanding the Role of a Mentor

7 Key Qualities of an Effective Mentor

What the Best Mentors Do

The Dos and Don’ts of Mentoring