6 Ways To Make The Most Of Your Mentorship, Dear Grasshopper

It's not hard to see why people seek mentors at all stages of their career (think greater earning power and more professional success). But a lot depends on the mentee. Fast Company found out how to maximize your time with a mentor.

Over the course of about 30 years, Alice Korngold, the CEO of Korngold Consulting, has mentored a lot of individuals, from students to corporate executives. One interaction stands out—and not in a good way.

Korngold, who’s advised global corporations and nonprofits on CSR for decades (and blogs for Fast Company on this topic), tells Fast Company that one mentee, who came to her on the recommendation of a business school professor, did nothing more to prepare for their first meeting than to show up at the appointed time.

"She didn’t know anything about me. She hadn’t researched my background and couldn’t tell me what she wanted," says Korngold. The result: "It was very hard to get traction and it was fractured."

While it's often assumed that mentors drive the progress—thanks to the career expertise and networking muscle—the mentee must hold up their end of the relationship. The first way to do this is by chucking the notion that they are imposing on their mentor by having a clear agenda.

On the contrary, says Korngold, "I felt an imposition that she hadn’t prepared. I think its the mentee’s responsibility to do their homework to understand the background, expertise, and value of the mentor, and ask for what they need."

It’s not hard to see why people at any stage of their career seek mentorship. After education, it’s the second most important factor in determining a person’s professional success, according to executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry InternationalTerri A. Scandura, a management professor and dean of the graduate school at the University of Miami, says employees who have mentors within their organization earn more money and are more productive.

That said, here are six ways to prepare to make the most of your mentor/mentee relationship: 

Make a Dedicated Effort Before You Start

Don’t expect benefits to be spoon-fed by your mentor, says freelance writer and coach Stephanie AuteriA dedicated autodidact, Auteri says, "I've done post-college internships, read a shit-ton of freelance writing blogs, a slew of writing/business books, taken continuing education courses, sought out informational interviews, etc., all in the pursuit of readying myself for the freelance life. I'm still self-educating."

Nevertheless, Auteri’s been on the receiving end of an avalanche of email from beginners who simply want all the answers. "Some even go so far as to ask me to share hard-won contact info despite the fact that I barely know them," she chafes. Her advice: "Be prepared and eager to learn."

Know Who You Are and What You Want

Korngold says the learning process should start with the mentee finding out as much as they can about their mentor. But they also need to analyze what they are trying to accomplish with their advisor. She suggests thinking in categories such as increasing professional networks, guidance, and/or introductions to others. 

"Then in the first meeting, lay out who you are, tell them this is how you can be helpful and here are ways I can be helpful," she says. Being sensitive and thoughtful of their time and generosity, Korngold advises not to throw everything at the mentor at once. "It’s almost a gentle negotiation." Subsequent sessions can further explore what each expects and set goals. 

Be Open to Learning Unexpected Lessons

When Sean Lane was a Venture for America fellow, he was exposed to a wide variety of speakers, trainers, and mentors during the five-week training camp. That meant a lot of wisdom, some of which fell outside his communications study area. Trying to "be a sponge" helped in unexpected way. After attending Manhattan Prep, Chris Ryan’s two-day business crash course, Lane says, "I was able to build my own valuation model," coupled with advice he’ll be taking to his work at Swipely. "Being open to learning new material and having someone willing to teach it made that end result possible."

Abandon the Ego

Jonathan Fields, author of Career Renegade and Uncertainty, says too many mentees look for mentors as a source of validation, rather than actual knowledge. "This happens at every level of business, but it's especially apparent in the startup world, where entrepreneurs often become overly attached to a particular solution, rather than the desire to serve a community," he says.

He recalls a recent interaction in which a startup founder asked to "bounce his app idea" off Fields. Once Fields began to ask questions designed to reveal some major mistakes the founder made in assumptions about his market and how his product would solve the problem, things went awry. "When the answers stopped fitting neatly into the plan he wanted to to execute on, rather than owning the errors and doing the work needed to pivot, he fought against the data and me," says Fields.

Instead of looking for knowledge and owning the problems, the mentee simply wanted validation. "A mentor's role is to provoke insight, not stroke ego," Fields says.

Don’t Forget Your Manners

Talk to anyone who’s been a mentor, and they’ll likely wax enthusiastic about how rewarding the experience can be. Even one that started out as daunting as Global Ambassador Justine Metz’s in Haiti. Korngold, too, is quick to kvell about some of the people she’s helped develop over the years. 

It’s important to remember that giving back is grounded in generosity, and should be appropriately acknowledged, says Auteri. "Know that your mentor is taking precious time out of his or her busy day to help you, so be on time for meetings and phone calls," she says. 

Keep the meetings on track, she advises, by suggesting a short chunk of time (15 to 30 minutes) and sticking to it. Afterward, Auteri says, don’t forget to show your gratitude for their kindness.

As the mentee achieves their goals this is especially important to keep in mind says Korngold. She recommends open communication to celebrate milestones. "The relationship can continue to blossom or it can wither if there’s not mutual respect and appreciation." 

Don't Wait For Permission

The thing that derails most mentees, according to Erika Napoletano, is the ongoing need for guidance. "We can help you unearth what's next, but our job isn't to tell you step-by-step how to get it done," says the author of Power of the Unpopular. If mentees feel the need to get permission to proceed, the relationship is destined to fail, she says. "Waiting on your mentor to tell you it's OK to be kickass is the least kickass act possible. Go be kickass. Report back. We'll be there to help you navigate the waters."

[Image: Flickr user Joysaphine]

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  • Jason Richards

    This is one of the most insightful articles that I have read in the last year.  All of the points were presented extremely well and I have gained a new focus as I search for the correct mentor.  I will definitely be sharing this article with everyone on my team and I encourage others to do it as well as we all thrive for professional success. 

  • Wes Roberts

    Excellent.  Thank you!  And as a leadership mentor for 47 years now...a similar article for mentors would be most welcome. The best of mentoring is not one dimensional...but multidimensional...an interplay between mentors and mentees, dare I suggest, in 8 dimensions.  

  • James

    I absolutely digg that part about challenging thoughts and receiving permission. Having been a mentee it's so much more fun when you're challenged, at least in my eyes. That's the point of being mentored - to grow and bring you to new heights!

    Excellent piece!


  • Jglagunday

    I like the part that explains we don't need permission to proceed. It's a hard lesson I am currently learning. Any follow up on this article to share about what a good mentor should be like? 

  • Why Won't Disqus Log Me In?

    I particularly like #2 and #6.  It's important to learn to take initiative and to ask tough questions.  Of course there's a huge difference between tough questions and uncomfortable questions, so be sure to differentiate.  I don't know many people my age that take menteeships seriously (if having one at all), so I can appreciate the points you bring up.

    If anyone is interested, I saw an article similar to this dealing with people my age (post grads) and huge career mistakes.