“Work with a mentor” is right up there with “maximize your 401K contributions” and “no more than one drink at the office holiday party” on the list of common advice given to young professionals at the beginning of their careers. Harder to find are answers to questions such as, What is the best way to build a mentor relationship? How can you make the most of your interactions? And how can you sustain a meaningful connection over time?
But I’ve found that it’s the mentees who consider these questions who make the most of a mentoring relationship. Mentorship functions best as a project that two people work on together, rather than a lecture series for which only the mentor is responsible.
So, once you’ve landed that mentor, here are five effective ways to engage:
Plan for and structure your meetings
Mentor meetings require preparation. First, take stock of where you are right now in your career, and where you could benefit from advice. Then, come up with a few specific questions to ask.
For someone just getting started in a new job, those questions might include: How do I conduct a first meeting as a manager with people who were previously my peers, and what are some tactics that have worked for you?
For someone who has outgrown her current set of responsibilities and is eager to take on more responsibilities, it might be appropriate to ask, How do I convince my manager that I’m ready to handle this big account on my own?
In either case, be specific with your request, and bring supporting information to inform the conversation, such as formal and informal performance feedback you have received. Know that there may be times when you are seeking counsel that’s more in the weeds of a particular problem and times when you are looking for higher-level “guiding principles” career advice. Work with your mentor to determine where she is most comfortable offering her perspective.
And while this may seem obvious, don’t overlook this simple step: start and end your mentor meetings on time. It’s another signal to your mentor that you appreciate her time—and respect your own.
Recognize that successful mentoring is a two-way street
Your relationship with a mentor may be structured to provide you with career guidance and insight, but don’t be afraid to return the favor. There’s no need to emulate the full-blown reverse mentoring programs in which young professionals counsel older ones on technology, but recognize that you may have helpful perspectives uniquely visible from your end of the org chart. Find ways to share these perspectives. This could be as simple as pointing out a news article on a trend in the mentor’s industry, showing up with a business book many of your peers are reading, or providing an example of problems that staff in your organization are facing but of which management seems unaware.
Another way to nurture your mentor relationship is to be consistent in closing the loop about outcomes to encourage investment in your success. People welcome the opportunity to offer their perspectives and advice, but it’s more satisfying to do so in the context of the results it enabled someone to achieve— or not. I recently wrote two letters of recommendation for new opportunities. For the first, a letter for a mid-career professional, I heard the outcome of the interview secondhand. For the second, I received a handwritten thank you note with the news. Guess which resonated more.
Be authentic to get authentic
It’s challenging when a conversation with a mentee reads like the worst possible job interview call and response trope: “What’s your biggest weakness?” “My perfectionism, of course.” Bring a real, meaty problem. Highlight an authentic weakness. Surface a mistake you made, and ask for feedback on how to correct or mitigate it. A hardworking young woman I know worked feverishly for two nights in a row to prepare for a critical meeting with her firm’s partners and then overslept and missed half the meeting. Once the panic wore off, she called me, and we walked through some steps for damage control. In subsequent meetings, I was able to share some of the missteps I have made or seen others make and how I used them to learn.
Be flexible about format
In-person meetings are valuable. Micro-interactions that occur in a face-to-face meeting—a shrug, a pause, a yawn—can be tougher to read via videoconference. In-person meetings may also make it easier to be frank about challenges in a way that may feel more daunting when speaking into a microphone. And there are many other interactions that occur around an in-person meeting. For example, at a lunch meeting with a mentee about a decade ago, I politely declined the table by the kitchen—a spot too often offered to two women dining together. A few years later she commented that this was one of the lessons that showed her that it was okay to offer a polite “no” when something is unacceptable.
But many mentors have busy schedules, so in-person meetings can be hard to schedule regularly. Use technology when it makes sense. Whether it’s a 15-minute Facetime call to discuss a specific issue or a Slack screen share of a big upcoming pitch, you can both still benefit from the interaction. Smart use of technology can also enable you to keep a regular cadence of these mentor meetings, another reminder that you take them seriously as part of your career development.
Know when it’s time to move on
Some mentorships are structured formally, offered through the workplace or through a specific fellowship program. People are matched by capabilities and networks, and there is a clear start and finish. Other mentorships will last forever, through a combination of continued career relevance and exceptional personal chemistry. Most will last for for five to ten years, after which a shift in career focus or a waning of personal connection will provide a natural ending point. Don’t ghost your mentor: exit gracefully by thanking them for their guidance and providing specific examples where the relationship set you on your course. You’ll feel better about ending things the right way, and you are doing careering right: building a network of strong and weak ties that will sustain you.
Mentor relationships are like any other—they benefit from clear expectations, ongoing communication, and trust. Properly invested in, they can reap dividends for years to come.
Perry Hewitt leads marketing at ITHAKA, a non-profit organization that aims to advance global education by improving research, teaching, and learning through innovative use of digital.