So you’ve got a mentor – how will you make it work?

I’ve been having some interesting discussions about mentoring recently, advising companies, mentors and mentees on the why and how of the process. If you’re thinking about becoming a mentor, check out my post ‘So you want to be a mentor?’

What if you’re about to become the ‘mentee’ (clunky word, but at least it’s clear – and I think preferable to ‘protégée’) and start working with a mentor? Please consider these points at the start:

1. Be clear what you want from the process
If you’re after having a general chat or the opportunity to moan about work, there are other ways you can do this that don’t involve taking up a mentor’s time and expertise. Think big: where do you want to be in 3 years’ time and what progress do you need to make towards that goal in the next 6 months? You need to get specific about where you want to go.

2. Have a chemistry meeting
This is where mentoring gets a bit like dating: there does need to be some chemistry between you and your mentor, rather than simply ticking boxes. They may have all the experience you seek but for some reason the two of you just don’t hit it off. Better to meet for a chat first – F2F if it’s safe to do so, or virtually – to discuss what you both want and expect from the relationship and to see how you get on. Be honest at this stage if you don’t think it will work, and say so with respect. And be prepared for your potential mentor to do the same with you.

3. Establish boundaries and commitments
In coaching land, this part of the relationship is called ‘contracting’, where both parties discuss and formalise how they’re going to work together. Hopefully you will have covered your goals at the first meeting but if not, do so now. Establish how you’ll keep in contact – via phone / video or F2F? Via work email address? At what times?

4. Show up!
Agree upfront the frequency and duration of your meetings and what’s OK / not OK if one of you needs to cancel or rearrange. This is important: a frustration of many a mentor is that the mentee cancels at the last minute because ‘something’s come up at work’. Something may well have come up, but stop and think: if you’re going to get anywhere in your career you’ll need to:

  • make commitments to yourself and others – and stick to them
  • put yourself front and centre at times
  • be very clear on what you want and why
  • negotiate your workload.

5. Drive the process
You are driving this bus that is your career – not your mentor. It’s not a passive relationship; you need to drive it and prepare to be held accountable. Your mentor will expect you to show up with examples of what you’ve achieved since you last met, what’s working well and not so well. Your mentor won’t hand you advice on a plate; you’ll need to work with them as a sounding board, figuring out options for you to try back in your own situation. By all means ask them for examples from their own career and experience about how they’ve handled something (that’s the idea), but don’t be surprised if they’re reticent about saying “do this / that” – they’re not your boss. A good mentor uses skilful questions to get you thinking for yourself, away from the coalface of the day job.

6. Assess how it’s working and call a halt if it isn’t
If after a few meetings with your mentor you don’t feel the process is working for you, it’s time for a frank conversation. Both parties need to say what’s working / not working for them and if they can’t establish a better way of working together, to end the relationship respectfully and amicably. Going back to the dating metaphor, you’ve no doubt met lots of nice people but you’re just not each other’s type. Reflect on what you’ve learned from the experience to take into your next mentoring relationship.


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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