5 tips to help you make the most of your relationship with your mentor

We wrote recently about some of the ways having a mentor can help you develop your career, and shared a couple of tips to bear in mind when you’re looking for the right person. But once you’ve started, how do you make it work?

It’s important that you’re comfortable together, and you should look forward to your sessions, but a mentor’s role is different from that of a friend. Treat your meetings as a ‘catch-up’ or as an opportunity to simply vent your frustrations, and it’s unlikely you’ll make much real progress.

The reality is that every mentoring relationship is different. It’s an arrangement that depends on the people involved, so there’s no single way of making it work. But there are some principles we think will apply to almost any pairing. Here are our five favourite tips on how to make the most of your relationship with your mentor.

1) Agree on a purpose and a rhythm

What do you want to achieve? Do you need guidance during a specific challenge, such as a project? Or do you want a more general, long-term sounding board as you build your career? You don’t necessarily need to have an ‘end state’ in mind – such as a specific role you want – but an idea of what you want to achieve will help you set the direction for your meetings from the beginning. That could be as vague as a role that plays more to the skills you enjoy using. Try also to think in terms of a five year plan. Once again it doesn’t have to be anything definite – just a loose idea of where you see yourself will be a good place to start. You can refine it as you go, and give you both something to measure your progress against.

A simple rhythm – how often, when and where – will help you both commit to the sessions. It’s also a chance to agree on how formally the sessions themselves should be structured, any coaching tools you will use, and to agree what each party’s expectations are of the other.

2) Decide what’s in scope, and what isn’t

A mentoring relationship should be a safe zone for both of you. You’ll help to establish that by agreeing what topics are acceptable, and if there is anything out of bounds. Depending on how you want to play it, this could be useful for keeping your conversations on track, but it could also be necessary if either you or are mentor are working on sensitive or confidential projects, or simply to establish boundaries which make you both comfortable.

Talk about how flexible your relationship will be. Is it acceptable to ask for advice outside your regular meetings? Will your mentor be comfortable if you ask for introductions to contacts in their network?

3) Be honest with your mentor

First and foremost, be yourself. Be honest and open about what you want, and about what your concerns and challenges are. Otherwise you’ll find real limits on how useful your sessions can be. A mentoring relationship is confidential, so you should be confident that anything you say will go no further unless at your specific request. Be honest as well about, for example, the level of challenge you’re comfortable with. If not, you could find your sessions turn sour.

If you find that you can’t be yourself with your mentor, you should take that as a pretty big sign that the relationship isn’t working. In which case, be honest again. Continuing a relationship that isn’t working won’t benefit either of you.

4) Put the work in

Mentoring takes effort on both of your parts, so be sure to do your bit. Your mentor is giving up their own time to focus on your development, so make sure you keep whatever commitments you make to them. And remember, it is all about your development. So set the agenda, and don’t simply wait for unprompted words of wisdom to wash over you.

Finally – and this bit is important – act on your mentor’s feedback. If you don’t make an attempt to put their suggestions into practice, you shouldn’t expect them to maintain their interest in your progress.

5) Think about what’s in it for them

And speaking of your mentor’s interest, you’ll get more out of the relationship if it’s of mutual benefit. Most people who agree to be a mentor do so out of an interest in developing others. It may be because they want to ‘give back’ for the help they’ve had during their own career, or maybe to be the person they wish they had access to a few years earlier.

But try to think a bit deeper about what you can offer them. Perhaps you can give them an opportunity to try out new coaching techniques. Maybe they would benefit from an insight into how things are feeling in your area or level of the business. Or is there a chance for you to contribute to an initiative they’re involved in? Make it clear you’re interested in offering them something in return – in making the most of their time – and you’re likely to find your mentor becomes all the more invested in helping you achieve what you want to do.

Not sure whether having a mentor is right for you?

Read about some of the ways that mentoring could help your career before you make up your mind