The laws that dictate a successful mentor-mentee relationship aren’t any different from those that dictate a personal relationship: know what you need from the other person and ask for it; challenge your partner to be the best version of themself; move on if it’s not working out; and avoid a messy breakup.
Being able to manage the mentor-mentee relationship is vital because no one achieves anything alone, according to Dennis Miller, president and CEO of Dennis C. Miller Associates Inc., where he acts as a strategic adviser to leaders of nonprofit organizations.
Further, mentorship, and the emotional connection that goes along with it, is a crucial component of workplace culture. “A good mentor will help you be motivated and reduce your mistakes,” Miller said. “A good mentor is someone who has achieved what you want to achieve and can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.”
The pairing is a two-way street in multiple ways. Just as the mentee needs a mentor for emotional support, guidance and inspiration, a mentor also gets an emotional connection out of the relationship. Each party has to play their role. Giving back freely and helping someone in a position that you started out in can be pleasurable. It creates a valuable brotherhood or sisterhood and allows a leader to pass on their wisdom.
But both parties should be active. Just as mentees need to be forthcoming and initiate the relationship, mentors needs to be inquisitive and let people know they’re looking for someone to pass wisdom to. Neither is a passive role. Either can find their other half anywhere: the office, a conference, the grocery store, a city bus.
Finally, both mentor and mentee have to be able to communicate effectively, and know what they want from the relationship. “Both have to be open to it,” Miller said. “Both sides have to have a discussion about expectations. You certainly don’t have to have a formal legal document, but you want to make your expectations clear.”
It’s important to be clear about expectations from the beginning of the relationship. For example, a mentor should be willing to meet up with their mentee on a regular basis. Ideally, once or twice a month is sufficient. In-person meetings are preferable, although over-the-phone conversations can be a good substitute.
However, these time commitment details should be part of a conversation before the mentorship officially begins. Just like personal relationships, professional relationships go sour when parties don’t communicate expectations. A mentor should be able to ask a mentee questions like, how much time do you need from me? How many times a month should we talk? Where is there room to compromise in our differing expectations? In this way, a mentor can make sure this professional relationship doesn’t go sour, that it develops into something both parties can benefit from greatly.
Once this solid foundation is built and both parties have embarked on a professional relationship together, the mentor can begin passing on wisdom. The advice Miller said he gives now as a mentor is a lot like the advice he once received as a mentee.
One of his first mentors, former New York City commissioner of health Lowell Bellin, once told him to approach a high-level executive at a hospital where he wanted to work. His instructions were, “Don’t ask for a job. Ask for advice.”
This proved to be invaluable because if you straight up ask someone for a job, they’ll be thinking about how they can tell you no. If you ask for advice, they’re more likely to like you and want to help. At the very least, they can introduce you to other valuable connections.
Another one of Miller’s mentors, his wife, also gave valuable advice in the middle of a career change: Be confident enough to challenge yourself to get the job you really want rather than the job you know you can do with your eyes closed.
“Too often we end up being in comfort zone,” Miller said. “So, as a mentor, I try to find out what [my mentees] really want in their hearts. What’s their dream, and how do I help create a path to that dream?”
As a mentor, using personal experiences can be valuable because just as mentees look for mentors whom they aspire to be like, mentors look for mentees who have similar goals and who can benefit from their own life experiences, lessons and mistakes.
Andie Burjek is a Chief Learning Officer editorial intern. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.