Making the Mentor Partnership Work: Part One (for the Mentee)

As you’re trying navigate the peaks and valleys of the work world, who couldn’t use a good dose of common sense, practical wisdom, and “been there, done that” support every now and then? But when it comes to mentors–someone well-versed in your industry and willing to share her experiences with you–it seems like only the lucky few are blessed.

The benefits of having a mentor’s steady hand on your shoulder to ease you through the tough times and celebrate the good are obvious. But few of the popular career guidance books–from What Color Is Your Parachute to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting the Job You Want–tell you what you really need to know about mentors: Namely, how to get one, and how to keep one. But don’t despair; few people enter the work world with a ready-made mentor. Instead, you need to actively pursue finding one–and take good care of her once you find her.

Understand what a mentor is…and is not The term “mentor” means different things to different people. In some cases, mentoring relationships last for years; for others, you may find pearls of wisdom from a chance encounter at a trade event. Some mentees speak with their guide on a weekly basis; in most other cases, conversations are much less frequent or regular.

In any case, a mentor is typically a person, usually several levels above you on the organizational chart, who can become an objective confidante, advisor, or guide through the sometimes incomprehensible jungle of career choices and obstacles, as well as office politics and games. The separation in terms of job level ensures that you both can relate to each other without feeling competition, which is the surest way to undermine the partnership.

While your mentor may be at the same company, often she’s not. A mentor also need not be the same gender as you, and you may find yourself developing several mentor-like relationships over the course of your career.

A mentor is not: Your parent, your best friend, or your romantic interest. If you find yourself falling into any of these relationship patterns, it’s time to find a new mentor.

Find a mentor While some lucky folks fall into a mentoring partnership–just as a lucky few fall into the perfect job–most people must invest effort into finding a match. Before seeking out a mentor, take some time to figure out what you need in a mentor–someone to provide general career advice, help you manage on-the-job relationships, help you approach or get through obstacles, or all of these things, for example–and then determine how a mentor may be able to help.

Then, start looking in your network of friends and business acquaintances; attend meetings of professional organizations, and make sure you’re circulating at your current company. Look for an experienced, well-respected individual: Someone who, when you see her, you say, “Wow! That’s where I want to be someday!” Occasionally a mentor will “adopt” you without any effort on your part. More common, though, is when you have to make the first move.

If you aren’t already acquainted with the person, simply introduce yourself or ask a mutual acquaintance to do the honors. Rather than falling at her feet, shouting, “I’m not worthy!” or asking for a lifelong commitment, start with something simple–like lunch. Explain that you’re looking for guidance in your field, describe particular areas you’re seeking guidance on, and ask if you can take her out for coffee and pick her brain. If she declines, let it go. Likely, it’s nothing personal, but instead work pressures or an already over-committed schedule; or perhaps she feels more capable of addressing areas other than the ones you most need help with. If she accepts, get prepared.

This may be the beginning of a long relationship or it may be the only time you have with this person–and either case is fine. You want to maximize the encounter, whatever it may develop into. Develop a short list of questions and concerns you’d like her input on. One caveat: Use this initial meeting to get to know her a little better, and avoid snowing her with a laundry list of your career problems. And let her guide the conversation as well.

At the end of the meeting, if you’d like to, ask if you can keep in touch. Again, if she politely refuses, take a deep breath and move on. If she agrees, ask what means of contact she prefers (e-mail, phone, etc.) and offer sincere thanks.

Respect her time and needs There’s nothing more off-putting for a prospective mentor than agreeing to help out a less experienced worker and then drowning under the ensuing tidal wave of phone calls, emails, and frantic pleas for help every time the mentee enters crisis mode. Remember, your mentor is a valuable resource: One to protect, not squander. So, take steps to answer your own questions, approach your mentor only when you really need help, and mention what information you’ve found and what you still need help with. By doing your part to answer your own questions and by approaching her only when necessary, you show you respect her time–which can go a long way.

If you’re worried you’re asking too much–in terms of guidance, time, or whatever–back off or simply ask what her expectations and needs are. And make sure to let your mentor know it’s perfectly okay to tell you when she just can’t help out. By respecting her boundaries, you’ll gain her respect.

Follow through By definition, the mentor-mentee relationship is somewhat lopsided. She’s giving the benefit of her life experience to you, and you may think there’s not a lot you do in return. But don’t underestimate the power of a genuine “thank you.” If she helps you with a particular sticky work situation or puts in a good word for you that leads to a great job, let her know how much you appreciate her time and effort. Take time to let your mentor know the outcome of situations she helped with and the value of the information she provided.

On occasion, it’s appropriate to thank your mentor with a small token (food is always good, as is wine if she’s an imbiber), should the situation warrant it. One thing to keep in mind: If you and your mentor work at the same company, be careful about material thank you’s. You’re better off buying her lunch or writing a sincere note.

Troubleshoot proactively Mentor relationships are like any other relationships; whenever two or more people get together, you can run into problems. So what do you do if your mentor goes AWOL and stops returning your calls? What if her advice seems inappropriate, or you just don’t get the same value out of your talks as you used to?

If your mentor stops returning calls, your best bet is to back way off. Likely, she feels overwhelmed and can’t deal with another demand on her time. Send her a note, thanking her for her continued help, and let her know you’d like to be back in touch when she’s ready. If you run into her in a social or work situation, definitely say hello, but let her be the one to suggest your next get-together.

It’s possible to outgrow a mentor just as you outgrow a job or a friendship. If this is the case, you don’t need to do anything to formally end your mentor-mentee arrangement. Simply move your relationship to a more social one, and begin looking for a mentor more appropriate for your needs.

As you move up the corporate ladder and your experience increases, you’ll naturally find yourself relying less and less on the advice of others. While you may never completely outgrow the value of an objective, sympathetic ear, you won’t have quite the same needs. When you reach this point, congratulations! It means you’re maturing and coming into your own. But graduating from the school of mentees brings a certain obligation. Now’s the time to look around you and find a new kind of partnership–one in which you’re the mentor.

Lain is a freelance journalist who has written on topics as diverse as hybrid fiber/coax telecommunications systems and massage therapy. A former technical writer, she now authors The Parent Trap, a nationally distributed parenting column and can be reached at Lainie9@aol.com.

Read more articles from Lain Chroust Ehmann