If you’ve asked for and received advice, congratulations: you’re a mentee.
Or, if on the flip side, a mentor.
For those just starting out in their career, it can be a little daunting to try to wrap their minds around the concept of a mentor. Who is a mentor? What is a mentoring relationship, or “mentorship”? Where are the boundaries? How does one find a mentor? What should you do once you find someone?
Each mentorship is different, but there are some commonalities that can be found.
What is a “mentorship”?
A mentor, by definition, is a trusted counselor or guide, typically someone who acts as a senior sponsor to a junior colleague. However, a mentor doesn’t have to be someone older than you. A mentor can be someone the same age as you or even younger than you! It all depends on what kind of mentorship you’re seeking.
That brings us to the question: what is a mentorship? A mentorship is a relationship, a social contract, based on a level of experience, trust, and investment that each party can bring to the table. A mentee typically seeks the advice and wisdom of someone who has been in a similar situation or is now in a position to which a mentee is aspiring. For example, a marketing coordinator may reach out to a senior VP, or a software developer may reach out to a CIO.
Another route is cross-pollination in an organization; a project manager may reach out to a business analyst on how to make the switch. Regardless, a mentorship is an exchange of information, advice, ideas, and experience between two individuals.
Where do the boundaries lie?
A key thing to remember in a mentoring relationship is that communication is of the utmost importance. This should seem obvious, as this kind of relationship is based on communicating wisdom to the other party, but it can be amazing what gets lost in the din.
Communication is crucial to understanding where the boundaries lie in your relationship. Mentors and mentees can simply be strangers who share one coffee together, or they can become close friends. In my experience, mentorships tend to stay within the social confines of colleagues who are acquaintances or friends.
Is there such a thing as an unhealthy mentoring relationship?
Like any relationship, there is the potential for a mentorship to turn into an unhealthy piece of your life. If you find that at any point the language becomes abusive, or that one party is not appreciative of the other, or there is some sort of power play at hand, then end the relationship. Full stop. Do not pass “Go”; do not collect $200. There is no point in keeping that person in your circle, and it is best to cut them out.
What are some best practices that each party can use at the mentoring table?
A mentee can start by being mindful of the potential mentor’s time; as noted elsewhere, not everyone has the time to give more than even half an hour. Accept this, and get what you can.
Mentees should also be ready to “jump” when a mentor says they’re ready. This does not mean a mentor should not respect a potential mentee’s time. However, traditional mentorships are based between a senior and a junior, and statistically a senior does not have as much flexibility in their schedule as a junior might. So if a mentor needs to reschedule that coffee date, reschedule the coffee date. (Mentors: if you have to reschedule the coffee date more than twice, maybe you should think about setting up a phone call instead.)
Mentors: please don’t be coy with your information. Good mentees are asking genuine questions and want to know more about you, your path, and how that can be reflected in their good work. There’s a reason the mentees sought you out, so enjoy it. On the other side of that coin, mentees: ask genuine questions. Do not just ask for connections into an industry or a job. That is simply bad manners.
What should I look for in a mentor?
A mentor should be someone who, first and foremost, you admire. Whether you like what they’re doing with their nonprofit, or they’re in a position where you’d like to be at some point in their career; they’re doing something that makes you sit up and go, Wow.
Second, that person should be accessible. Not everyone has the time (as much as they would like) to mentor every single person that asks them. Oftentimes they only have time to dispense one single piece of advice. This is more than okay; everyone should do what he or she can and be respected for it. However, a successful, long-lasting mentorship relies on accessibility.
Most importantly, each mentor and mentee should feel not just confident about their choice to enter this social contract, but each person should feel valued and as though they’re bringing their A-game. If something doesn’t feel right, communicate that with whomever you’re sharing this time. Remember, integrity is key to a fulfilling mentorship.
Would you agree? What are some tips you can share as a mentor? Mentees, what have you noticed could be improved about the mentors you’ve encountered?
*This post also appeared on LinkedIn.