How to manage a mentor relationship that is off to a rocky start

By Tracy Brower

February 23, 2021
Connecting with a mentor can be a huge benefit in your career. More and more companies are launching and expanding mentorship programs, so they are designating mentors, matching mentors, and establishing mentor-mentee relationships from the moment you join the company.

But for many, the assignment of a mentor is only a first step. Like a blind date, it can be awkward—only a toe in the water in an uncertain sea. As a mentee, how can you make the relationship successful? Especially if you’re new to a company or a role, you may not feel you have a lot of influence in the venture. In actuality, you can significantly contribute to creating the conditions for a great experience.

Go in with gratitude

When you’re considering how to create a great relationship with your mentor, start with gratitude. Regardless of how perfect (or imperfect) the match, recognize and appreciate the time your mentor spends with you and the advice they give. Whether or not it’s exactly what you’re looking for, there is still an element of generosity associated with how your mentor is carving out moments for you and providing perspective.

Also know you are part of a two-way relationship. Rather than believing the mentor is in charge of the connection, remind yourself that you’re both professionals who have a contribution to make. Your mentor may know more about the role or the company, but you also bring a lot of expertise in other areas.

Help your mentor help you

Too often, mentors feel a lot of pressure to fill time and bring topics to the table. Further, they may not receive a lot of training or coaching from the organization about how to be good at mentoring. You can be helpful to the mentor and get more of what you need when you are proactive. Be prepared with a list of topics. Ask questions aligned with the mentor’s experience. Initiate discussions about the company culture or nuances about how things get done in the organization. Chances are your mentor will appreciate your initiative and the opportunity to help in areas that are most useful for you.

Focus on building trust with your mentor. When developing relationships, openness tends to lead to more openness. Share details about yourself and watch your mentor likewise share parts of their life. Increase the amount of sharing you do over time, as the relationship grows. The more your mentor understands about you, the more they can be specific about the guidance, coaching, or advice they offer.

Be expansive in thinking about how your mentor can help you. You may just need a small amount of orientation to the systems in the organization, or you may need a deeper level of guidance about how to expand your network. Even more, you may need coaching to help you solve a problem or work through a thorny issue. Or at the highest level, you may need someone to advocate for you in the organization. A mentor can fill all of these roles, or perhaps just one. Work to tailor your requests to acknowledge these various levels of mentorship, the support you need, and (perhaps most of all) the nature of the relationship you’re building.

Spread the wealth

Too often, when a company assigns a mentor, it can shape the expectation that the mentor will provide all the necessary kinds of support you need. But this is probably too much to ask from any one person. You will likely need to find multiple people from whom to get coaching. Perhaps your mentor can help you get acclimated to the company’s policies or processes but can’t give you guidance about informal networks. Or maybe your mentor will give you advice about growing your career, but won’t be part of your friend network.

It is a rare person in any relationship who can meet all of your needs, and mentors are no exception. Knowing this, connect with plenty of people across your company. Hold one-on-ones, invite contacts to grab a (virtual) coffee, and seek out those who can provide all kinds of information and support. Think about broadening your relationships across the network at the same time you’re deepening your relationship with your mentor.

Keep realistic expectations

There is a misconception that mentor-mentee relationships should last a lifetime, but in reality the best mentorship relationships are relatively time-bound. They generally last about a year, or maybe two. If you happen to find a match made in heaven, by all means maintain the bond. But also reassure yourself that if the relationship ends after a year or so, it’s not a failure; on the contrary, this amount of time is about right.

It’s always smart to have a mentor who can help, guide, and coach, but it’s more typical to have a series of mentors over time, rather than one who lasts many years. You’ll have different needs at different stages of your career, and the right mentor at the right time can help you thrive.

Overall, know the relationship you have with your mentor is yours to shape and influence. It’s a context for plenty of learning—about tasks, roles, culture, and the network—and it can also be a great place for you to expand your views of what works best. Later, when you’re the mentor to a new mentee, you can apply all the best practices you’ve learned from the relationships you’ve built.

Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of  The Secrets to Happiness at Work.

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