By: Ray Kimball
When we think about mentoring, we put a lot of focus on the conduct of the mentor. And that makes sense, because, let’s face it, a lot of the ways to screw up a mentoring relationship fall squarely in the lap of the mentor. But it’s important to remember that mentoring is a two-way relationship, so the actions of the protégé are equally important. This article will suggest some key things protégés can do to ensure success during the first two stages of a mentoring relationship. Part 2 will talk about what protégés need to do as relationships come to a close.
Initiation Stage: the start of a relationship
Good proteges are deliberate from the start about their choice of mentor: they don’t just latch on to the first person they spot as a potential mentor. Look for mentors who have taken a career path you’re interested in; who behave in ways that you want to emulate; or who have simply lived the kind of life that you see for yourself. And be forthright about asking someone to be your mentor: use the terms mentor and protégé, instead of euphemisms that might leave the potential mentor unclear about your thoughts.
Once someone has agreed to be your mentor, have frank and candid conversations about what you want from the relationship. One way to think about this — are you looking for a coach, who will help you build specific skills or develop particular attributes? Are you seeking a sponsor, who will open doors for you within the organization? Or do you want a connector, who can link you up with other like-minded individuals? It’s OK if you’re not sure about any of these — just raising them with your mentor can help you both think through what you want. As part of this discussion, make sure you give your mentor the opportunity to say what he or she wants out of the relationship. And be prepared for the possibility that your potential mentor can’t give you what you want, and you need to look elsewhere.
Finally, during initiation, you both need to figure out the means that work best for you. This may seem obvious — isn’t mentoring just sitting down and having discussions? Yes, but there are many ways to have those discussions beyond just the simple basics of face-to-face. Phone, email, chat, text, and social media are all viable options for mentoring engagements once you’ve established an initial baseline of conversations. But not all of them are going to work equally well for both your mentor and you. Don’t assume that your mentor has a preference for any of these items; ask them. This can save a lot of heartburn and miscommunication later in the relationship.
Cultivation: the meat of a mentoring relationship
Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions of your mentor. There are some subjects that tend to be taboo in organizations among co-workers and between superiors and subordinates: sex, politics, and religion, just to name a few. But all of those also have opportunities and challenges in a workplace context, and proteges can easily stumble into difficulties in these areas without the wise counsel of a mentor. This is especially true when talking about a workplace that operates in cross-cultural venues. Being willing to ask your mentor about taboo subjects is a way to show your trust and confidence in them, as well as the esteem in which you hold them.
Throughout the relationship, you’ll be asking your mentor for their perspectives and opinions. When you do that, be realistic about their response times to your requests. Remember, your mentor is a busy professional just like you, and you may not be his or her only protégé. They need time to reflect on your requests to make sure they’re giving you the best answers possible. So don’t freak out if your burning question is met initially with silence; it’s less likely that you’ve scared your mentor off and more likely that they’re thinking through their own experiences, trying to synthesize their answer.
A side note on this: at some point, you will send a document of some kind to your mentor for review. You will do your mentor an immense service if you give them a clear timeline for when you need their response. You’re not being demanding (well, unless you tell them you want a response RIGHT NOW); you’re helping them sequence your needs among the other stuff demanding their attention. Even better, tell them what’s driving your timeline; for example, say “I really need your feedback on this resume by next Wednesday, because that will give me a full day to review what you’ve said before the job submission deadline.” That way, they not only understand what’s driving the need, they can even give you feedback about things you may have overlooked.
One thing to remember: not every aspect of the mentoring relationship is going to go well. Both you and your mentor are human, and missteps along the way are inevitable. Individual errors don’t mean that you’re a bad protégé or that your mentor is irredeemably flawed. But they do underscore the importance of having candid conversations with one another about what’s working and what’s not. Remember, both of you have committed to share yourselves with each other, and part of that sharing is making clear where the other party has deliberately or inadvertently transgressed. By doing so, you can keep the relationship on track and get the best possible outcomes for both of you.
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Ray Kimball is a former and current protégé who is blessed with some amazingly patient mentors.
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