14 tips for keeping a mentor

mm Russ Finkelstein

Have you ever read the book or seen the movie version of About A Boy? It is built on the premise that everyone needs an extended support system in this life to share struggles and successes. That sentiment is at the very core of how I see the world. In my mind, mentors are a part of the solution to feeling supported and informed.

Mentoring is one of my favorite subjects to talk with people about, for a few reasons. First, many people I meet have an unrealistic notion of the role of a mentor (see my post “Why I Hate the Word Mentor”). Secondly, people also limit their concept of who mentors should be (see my other post “Your Mentors are Allowed to Be Younger”). You just need to know: a mentor is not the primary answer to your work problems.

However, I am a people-pleaser, and if you are going to look for a mentor, then I want you to be successful. So once you’ve found one (bearing in mind that you need to be realistic about what they can offer you, and that you should consider a variety of people as mentors) the real question is: how do you get a mentor relationship to endure?

I don’t want to sound too puffed-up, but lots of people approach me to serve as their mentor. Nevertheless I actually end up having a lengthy mentoring relationship with very few people. Why is that, do you think? It’s because most people don’t attend to the needs of their mentors. Mentors have needs, too!

Fourteen Tips For Tending To Your Mentor

  1. You follow through. You know the drill, we have conversations where you ask for guidance and I respond with some suggestions. Unless there is a specific reason otherwise, I would expect you to follow through and ideally share with me the results. In most of my first meetings I will ask you to do some work after our first interaction. This is how I determine whether you will follow-through. I don’t want to be more invested than you.
  2. There is an initial spark that continues. Yes, I know this is a dating comparison. If you choose a mentor because the conversation is productive and you enjoy the repartee, it shouldn’t surprise you that we too value this. Some percentage of our time together may be about your getting access to someone in my network, but this could be even more quickly accomplished via LinkedIn, so it needs to be something more than that. Ideally I want this relationship to be compelling, too. Access to my connections and access to feedback on other ideas are very different. For me, network access alone is not a very compelling reason for an ongoing conversation.
  3. You are sharing your authentic self. People will often have an artifice or professional persona that they present. I’m not your therapist, but I can’t help you if you don’t share what’s happening related to your work including what’s happening in your head. This isn’t an invitation to start talking about all of your abandonment issues in our second conversation, but if you are holding back essential pieces of information during our conversation we will never find a solution that will work.
  4. There is a specificity to our connection. My work life and service work enable to meet and speak with thousands of people annually. There is often a desire to keep the conversation going. I want to help as many people as possible, but given the limitations of my time, I need to see a compelling reason about why who I am will be specifically helpful to you. There must be an alignment. For example, If you are starting up a fellowship program that helps a particular demographic consider a career path then you had me at hello. I may also look at whether your prior work or life experience makes you seem like the kind of person who is invested in the work itself?
  5. Investment goes both ways. As I wrote about at great length in my last networking piece, “The One Thing People Almost Always Get Wrong When Networking”, it is essential that both parties feel valued. You are asking about my work and life tells me quite a bit about how you view this relationship and perhaps all people who help you. I may not always have the time, energy or need to respond in great detail, but the appearance of interest offers up real insight about you and your likelihood to pay it forward in the future.
  6. You listen and engage. I don’t mean that you do everything that I say, I only expect this of my romantic partner, but rather that you seem to be processing the information. The last thing I want is blind obedience, so a smart conversation with your informed perspective shows me that you are synthesizing information. However, if the same issue keeps coming up, we probably aren’t communicating well, which is essential to any ongoing mentoring relationship. For example, if we have the same conversation monthly about making the same decision and you haven’t taken any action I will begin to get frustrated and feel as though maybe you need to speak with someone who can give you advice you can hear better.
  7. You don’t make me look bad. I’m freer than most with introductions to those in my network. You treat those introductions with the kind of respect it took me to make them in the first place and you follow through in a timely way, and thank them for their time! One of the truly stinker things one can do is to ask for an introduction to someone that you fail to follow-up with. A failure to execute makes you look worse than me, but would I want to spend any time and social capital on that?
  8. You respect that I can’t always be available. You’ll reach out to me to speak and generally understand that while I want to help I am not always available to do what you need immediately. Your prior questions about my work life will help you grasp this better. However, this also shows me that you as a professional grasp that everyone has deadlines. It shows an ability to see beyond your situation.
  9. You can handle no. My time, my knowledge and my network all have limitations. You are ok when ‘no’ or ‘I can’t’ come up from time to time. We all want what we want when we want it. However, part of this adulthood thing is realizing that this doesn’t happen sometimes. You respect that given how often I do provide help that if I do on occasion say no, that there is probably a reason. I too have to tangle with ‘no’ or  ‘I can’t’ in my professional life more often than I might like. Very few of us aren’t hearing that too regardless of our position.
  10. You communicate regularly. One of the more perplexing mentoring experiences is when someone has a spurt of activity where communication happens regularly, then disappears for a lengthy period of time only to return suddenly with great and immediate need. It’s always better to have a more predictable and regular communication where you inform me about what’s happening in your life whether in-person or via email.
  11. You reach out sometimes, without a request. Sometimes you reach out to share an update about your life without wanting anything. That’s fantastic. A quick update is always welcome.
  12. You don’t expect exhaustive knowledge. I never thought I would have to admit to this, but I don’t know everything. To expect that of me is as unrealistic as my expecting that of myself. One of my greatest lessons is to recognize those limitations. I am very direct about the places where you would be much better served by speaking with others, and I may well have someone in mind. I’m not holding back from you – I promise.
  13. You allow for shades of gray. I’ll always share very directly when I feel very certain of my expertise. Even in those cases where I am approaching 100% certainty I still don’t want you to wholly rely on my opinion. Rather, in most cases I think I provide a starting point for conversation on big issues where further conversations will help you develop informed opinions.
  14. You demonstrate growth. This is less an action for you to take and more about something I will notice. It will be clear to me that you are taking our conversations and building on them to become an ever more confident and capable professional.

I know that for many people the promise of a mentor is a combination of access to others, experienced perspective and the boosting feeling that you are worthy of that kind of investment.

You are a leader, and people will be interested in being an active part of your growth. Try to be mindful of what I’ve suggested, and you will end up having a productive mentor relationship. Let me know how it goes.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >