A mentor-mentee relationship should be one where both parties personally select the other. In an age where companies are creating formal mentorship programs and assigning people to each other, we should be extra wary. Not all people who want to be mentors actually should be mentors and, if you are an aspiring mentee you should be aware of how to evaluate that the relationship with your mentor is a healthy or even beneficial one.
When making your selection, seek out someone who is already doing what your career goal is. If they aren’t there yet themselves, they might be able to help you reach where they are at currently but they can’t help you nearly as much as someone who has already established themselves at the level you ultimately want to reach. Since your mentor is the person who can most help you move forward, you shouldn’t make this selection lightly.
To help evaluate your mentor, here are eight things you should hear at some point during your relationship together:
1. “How do you think you will handle this?” A real mentor guides you but doesn’t always tell you what to do. If you are constantly hearing, “Well, what you need to do is …” you don’t have a mentor, you have a dictator or a boss. A mentor helps you figure out things on your own – with some exceptions. If you are about to make a huge misstep, they do need to tell you. In general, though, the goal of the mentor-mentee relationship is for you to stand on your own in a new arena, not for you to be dependent on your mentor for constant advice.
2. “Let me introduce you to …” is a phrase you should be hearing – though don’t expect it for quite some time into your relationship. A good mentor will connect you to other people in the field once you reach a point where your skills are up to the “excellent” standard. Don’t expect this if you are still learning the core competencies. Once you are excelling, the goal is to connect you to others in the field who can further grow your career or provide you with increased opportunities.
3. “I think you’re ready for…” Since they will be actively watching you progress, a mentor will encourage you to keep stepping up to the next level. Since you selected someone who is already successful in your field, they will have done many of these same steps when they were coming up through the ranks. They will know what the next logical progression is for you to grow or move into in order to increase your skills.
4. “You’re not giving me your full potential.” Be prepared that when you slack, give less, or do less than you are capable of to be called on the carpet for it. A mentor doesn’t let you get away with less for long. If you aren’t ready to be pushed outside your comfort zone, you aren’t really ready for a mentor. It’s not all sunshine and roses. Be prepared to be angry with your mentor on occasion – particularly if they are pushing you to do what they see you are capable of and you don’t have the vision yet to see why you need to do it. A good mentor will beat any whiny baby tendencies right out of you. They aren’t here to make this easy on you – it’s frequently quite the opposite.
5. “You need to work on …” A mentor is not conflict avoidant. A mentor points out the areas you need to work on. You may need to draw these critiques out of your mentor on occasion but the feedback is invaluable. Part of your role as the mentee is to equally ask, “What do I need to do to be better?” and to not let your mentor get away with the answer of “Everything is just great.” There is always something. Find out what it is. Your growth depends on it.
6. “I love how you …” A mentor will praise what they want to see more of and will not let you languish with just their criticisms and critiques alone. Part of the feedback process and even one of the rewards of a healthy mentor-mentee relationship is this form of real – not superficial – praise of your abilities. We sometimes sell ourselves short. Just like good mentors won’t let you slack, they also won’t let you see yourself for less than who you really are.
7. “Come with me …” A mentor doesn’t just guide through talking, they ask you to come with them to meetings, conferences, and work with them directly in some way. “Shadowing” in this way is a crucial piece to the relationship being built. You will often learn more from someone through direct observation than you would just listening to them talk. Mentors aren’t always fully aware of what they do that has made them successful. Be a field researcher when you are with them and look for these things. Learn through their actions as well as their words.
8. “You’ve outgrown me.” This doesn’t mean you can’t still be friends or colleagues but there should come a point in your relationship where you transition from mentor-mentee into peers. The most ideal of relationships is one where the mentee is able to take everything learned and actually do one better than they have been shown. The mentor-mentee relationship wasn’t built to last forever. At some point, it is necessary and even healthy to leave the nest.
I have had many mentors throughout my personal and professional life – with each leading me to the next. In the spots where I had gaps, the authors of some of my favorite books served as mentors for me. Even when no one is physically present, there is no excuse to not find ways to continue learning.
Be open and choose wisely.
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