There are plenty of tips on getting the most from your mentors, but what are they getting from you? Are you someone people actually want to advise?
Deidre Paknad, the CEO of Workboard—a goal management and performance automation app—has seen both sides of the mentor-mentee relationship. “I had really terrific mentors early in my career that made a huge impact on what I was capable of and what I believed I was capable of,” she says.
Now Paknad is the one offering advice to newbies. She says that people both inside and out of her company have asked for her guidance, and she’s happy to help—as long as the relationship feels like a good use of her energy. “I don’t have a lot of spare time,” she adds, “and I can have coffee with my friends.”
Here, Paknad and others reveal what turns a mentee from extraneous coffee date into valued protégé.
Before you even identify a possible mentor, think about what you’re hoping to get from the relationship. What skills are you looking to build right now? Is there an aspect of your field you’d like to better understand? Paknad says that hashing out your goals first will point you toward the right mentor—and ensure that the sessions are worthwhile for both of you. “When I’m mentoring someone, I need to see where I can add value,” she adds.
Lois Zachary, president of Leadership Development Services and director of its Center for Mentoring Excellence, says it’s important to create a set of agreements early in the relationship—and it’s up to mentees to establish them. Topics may include confidentiality safeguards, how you’ll handle obstacles, or a promise that whoever cancels a meeting is in charge of rescheduling it. The rules can even be as simple as beginning and ending each meeting on time.
The type of person you want as a mentor is usually in high demand elsewhere, too. Remember that your mentor is busy and her time is valuable. Paknad suggests setting an agenda for each session—just one or two topics—and emailing it to your mentor the day before you meet. She says you should also leave each session with something you’re going to try or practice. “If you come in and leave with an agenda, a mentor will feel like they’ve constructively contributed,” Paknad adds.
Zachary recommends learning as much as you can about your new mentor. She says that will lead you into real conversations rather than back-and-forth “transactions.” Outside of the obvious LinkedIn or corporate bio research, try asking questions when you meet up. “I’m curious what your career ladder looked like” can be a good starting point.
We want mentors to see our best sides, but they can help more if they know the real you. “If you’re withholding and you’re not transparent, your mentor is going to end up mentoring an imposter,” says Zachary, who also cowrote The Mentee’s Guide. Be honest with your mentor—tell her what scares you, what challenges you, what you still don’t understand after several years in your industry.
Make sure your mentor knows that you value his or her help. Kathy Kram, coauthor of Strategic Relationships at Work, suggests letting mentors know when you’ve made use of their advice, how you used it, and then thanking them. She says it can be in a quick email, a face-to-face meeting, or even a handwritten note. “Mentors like to know the impact of what they’re offering to people,” she adds. “They want to know it’s worthwhile.”
Don’t just silently absorb everything a mentor says, nodding every 30 to 60 seconds. Kram says active listening—asking follow-up questions, steering the conversation toward different subjects—is “not only stimulating to the mentor, but the mentor is likely to come out of the conversation feeling that they learned something, too, or at least that they enjoyed it.” In the same vein, she says to be helpful to your mentor by offering your insights where they can be useful, or even just sharing an article you read and enjoyed.
Paknad recommends setting a timeline for the mentorship up front. Maybe you’ll meet once a week for three months; maybe once a month for a year. Whatever you decide, try to stick to the timeline you’ve created. “Know when to move on,” Paknad adds. “That’s important, and sometimes young people are afraid to put that out there.” And moving on doesn’t mean the relationship is over. Send an email or set up a lunch every few months to check back in.
“If you work hard and you’re visibly thriving in an organization, mentors will find you,” Paknad says. The opposite is also true: “if you’re sitting on the bench, not visibly making an impact, it’s hard to get people to invest their time in you,” she adds. Paknad says that if you excel at your job and are clearly hungry to learn and grow, senior-level mentors will likely seek you out, eager to help.
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer who often covers topics in business, culture, and higher ed. Follow her on Twitter @writermolly.