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Every working professional dreams of having a mentor in their field who believes in them.
At their best, mentors are the senior advisors you can call on in times of crisis, the ones who guide you when you stray. They’re the successful Big Names with the clout to pluck you out of obscurity and introduce you to all the right people.
It’s a beneficial relationship for both the junior partner seeking guidance and the senior one dispensing wisdom. Mentors get the pride and joy of helping a future star succeed, mentees get the much-needed confidence and network to succeed.
But these relationships can deteriorate quickly when the mentor-mentee relationship is seen as a transaction where mentorship goes in, and success magically comes out. Usually, these relationships fail when one side doesn’t see that having a mentor is a two-way street.
Here’s what mentors and mentees need to do to prevent their partnership from souring.
1) Set time-management expectations from the beginning
Mentees need to realize that their mentor’s times is valuable. Mentees should not schedule a meeting at the last minute. There should be no late-night Hail Mary texts demanding career advice on whether or not they should take the job. These excessive communications do not reflect well on you, the mentee. It makes it seem as if you don’t respect your mentor’s time.
As the senior partner in this relationship, mentors should set the example and delineate time parameters from the beginning. Say what times and days you can be available to be contacted. Be firm that if your mentee cannot make a time, they must give at least 24-hours notice.
2) Clarify what you need and what you can give
Asking for a mentor is not sending a vague, generic request to pick a successful person’s brain. The foundation to a good mentee-mentor relationship begins with both sides being clear about what they want and what they can bring to the table.
Harvard Business Review outlines what a mentee should know about what they want before seeking out a mentor. Do you need a coach to work through performance-related issues, a sponsor who can champion your promotion, or a connector with access to the relationships you need to do your job well? Knowing what you want is critical to not wasting yours or your mentor’s time.
For mentors, it’s important to set and manage expectations from the beginning about what you can offer your mentee: advice on negotiating a contract, a connection to that important person, or ongoing feedback on projects. When a mentee is being vague about goals, a good mentor will kindly ask him or her to be specific about how they can help, so that the mentor can redirect them to the right person.
That means no meet-ups for career advice coffee until everyone is on the same page about what this meeting will entail.
3) Facilitate the good energy
Mentorship should be energizing for both sides. But not everyone has the spirit to be a mentor. Not everyone has the maturity to be a mentee. Before you embark on a mentor-mentee relationship, it’s good to choose your dance partner wisely.
For mentees, that means not being a “’vampire’ draining the life from them by asking many questions or sending excessive communications,” according to Harvard Business Review.
For mentors, that means facilitating your mentees’ growth and not immediately shutting down your mentees’ ideas. Consider the off-the-wall, ambitious idea of your mentee. They’re entrusting you with their hopes and fears. Good mentors encourage their mentees’ energy. They acknowledge that their mentees’ success will look different from their own.
4) Acknowledge the work that goes in
Above all, being a good mentor or mentee means acknowledging the work that’s going into making this relationship work. For mentees, it means thanking your mentor for their advice in words and through actions.
For mentors, it means going the extra mile to help bring out the best in someone. In a world where our careers are long and winding, roles can be reversed and the mentor can one day become the mentee.
As journalist Ann Friedman explains this two-way street, “You should always be kissing down and sideways, to the people who are going to be working alongside you and coming up behind you. I’m really aware of my impending irrelevance,” Friedman told the Longform podcast. “I want there to be some journalist who remembers when I got on the phone with her in 2013 and helped her negotiate for her first salary and throws me a … bone. I think about that moment a lot.”