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Want a Successful Mentorship Experience? Do Your Part

A woman working on her laptop in an office.

​There is more to a mentoring relationship than simply having a more experienced person to run to for career advice. A successful mentorship experience has a structure, purpose and time frame, according to experts.

The first step for mentees, said Carrie Root, Ph.D., is recognizing their responsibilities in the relationship and taking them seriously. She is the author of The Other Soft Skill: How to Solve Workplace Challenges with Generational Intelligence (Advantage Media Group, 2021) and founder and CEO of Alpha Umi, an education consulting firm headquartered in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

"You need to take the time to have the relationship. Show up, show up on time, come prepared," she advised. It's just as important to be punctual for a virtual meeting as it is for a coffee date at a café, she noted.

"You also have to be flexible. … If that mentor gives you things to work on, you've got to be committed to [performing them]. Nothing turns a mentor off more than thinking their time is not appreciated," Root said.

The typical mentoring relationship lasts an average of 3.3 years, according to a survey of 3,000 U.S. workers conducted by Olivet Nazarene University in 2018, and participants devote an average of four hours per month conversing with each other. The majority of respondents who had mentors were junior-level employees and worked at the same company as their mentor.

However, the mentoring relationship could be short term, Root said, depending on the goal.

"As a mentee, recognize that the mentor is not responsible to you for the rest of your professional career," she pointed out. "Chances are, you are going to be changing mentors over time."   

[SHRM student resources: HR Career Mentoring

It's important to have a well-defined reason for seeking a mentor. Are you looking for someone to offer guidance on a work project? Are you taking on new responsibilities?

"If someone came to me and wanted me to mentor them, my first question is 'Why do you want me as a mentor? What kind of commitment do you want from me?' Many people who are sought out [for mentoring] are very busy people," Root said.

"I'm not a Dear Abby," she added. "I want someone that is extremely focused, has goals that are set and a timeline in which we evaluate that. As a mentor, you can weed out pretty quickly who is really committed and worth your time."

The mentee should help create a self-development plan, said Bert Thornton, co-author of High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People's Lives (BookLogix, 2021).

"At the beginning, the onus of the relationship is on the mentor to get it started," said Thornton, former president and COO of Waffle House. "Success comes when it turns around and the mentee owns the whole program. That's the goal of the mentor … to move [the mentee] to a position of 'This is what I think I need to do. What's your opinion?'

"Come prepared to these meetings," he advised mentees, "and be ready to take charge of these meetings over time."

Knowing how to create a self-development plan, however, is not intuitive, Thornton acknowledged. "There are three exercises I find tremendously useful in helping a mentee to sort things out and identify the right paths to take," he said. These include:

1. Taking a candid look at your strengths and weaknesses. 

"This is the mentee's inventory of abilities and proficiencies that are there to be maximized and also the shortcomings, flaws and deficits that need to be shored up," Thornton said. Put pen to paper and create strengths and weaknesses columns and "just let your thoughts flow onto the paper, [noting] what you believe you are good at and where you feel the need for improvement or where you could use some help."

Put it aside and return to it the next day.

"New thoughts and ideas will come to mind, and you can add them to the list. An honest list of strengths and weaknesses is best done in a few sittings, eventually involving the input of people you trust to be frank with you," he noted.

Ask a trusted friend or colleague for honest insights on what you should add to either column. Avoid listing as weaknesses things like "I try too hard" or "I'm too nice to other people," Thornton advised. "These are not real weaknesses. They are self-serving softballs that are thrown out when the mentee does not want to look deep for areas that really need improvement."

Once the mentee has completed a self-evaluation, "this is where a good mentor comes into play, offering appropriate development paths, whether that help comes in the form of inspiration, motivation or skill set improvement," he said.

2. Pick the one strength and one weakness that interest you the most and work on them first.

"Feel good about your progress with those before you act on the others," Thornton advised.

3. Identify what you think is really important in your life. 

Use the ideals you identify to rule out things you would not tolerate, such as a particular geographic move or a position with more job stress than what you currently have.

"Once this list is made," Thornton said, "you then prioritize your true wants, needs and desires by numbering them in order of importance. Now go to work on [priority] No. 1."


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