Tips for Building
(or Severing) a Mentoring Relationship
Q: I’ve been a mentee for about three months. Both my mentor and I
were excited about our new roles and ready to roll when we began.
Now I’m not sure it’s going to work out. It took a long time and
lots of work for me to find my “Yoda”, and I don’t want to give up
on our agreement yet. Where do I go from here?
A: Before you decide to bale, try a new approach for bringing
renewed life to your flagging relationship. It may be that your
mutual choice to work together was on target, but your process is
missing the mark. Here are some tips for turning things around or,
if necessary, diplomatically go your own way:
While there’s no particular
protocol on when and where to meet, it’s important to structure
your time together. Schedule regular sessions every two weeks or
once a month to get off to a good start. Otherwise, you may
never get your relationship off the ground! If politics run
rampant in your organization, it's probably wiser to schedule a
breakfast or lunch off site, rather than meet in your mentor's
Plan an agenda for each meeting
and give it to yo mentor in advance. Have a specific issue ready
to discuss. Perhaps you might include some specific questions to
help your mentor prepare for your time together, especially if
this is a new role for him. You are using the valuable time of
two busy people. Make it count.
your discussions aren’t going well, talk openly about how to
improve your communication. Also try “active” listening, where
you repeat what your mentor has said to be sure you understand
what he meant. Use “I” statements to take responsibility for how
you are interpreting or feeling about the words and tone of the
conversation. Enlist a friend’s or therapist’s help to get a
second opinion about what’s going on, if necessary.
let miscommunication build resentment and distance or result in
explosive frustration for either of you. “Gunny-sacking” is a
sure way to end a relationship and burn an important bridge.
and your mentor work on it, your friendship will settle into a
comfortable informality. You may choose to become more flexible
in your meeting schedule and need for an agenda and prior
preparation. Just be careful. It’s easy to take each other for
granted and neglect your time together. To keep that from
happening, always assume that it’s your responsibility to keep
Over time you may eventually be
confronted with two ticklish situations:
Your expertise equals or
surpasses your mentor's.
Your mentor slips from favor in
the organization's power structure due to his own mismanagement
or because the new leadership views him as a vestige of the old
regime. (The latter reason is prevalent in mergers and
of these scenarios require a diplomatic assessment of your
relationship's value versus the potential harm it might cause your
career. If you've chosen a savvy, self-confident mentor, she will
enjoy watching your progress, possibly feel a sense of relief when
you achieve a peer level, and look forward to a relationship of
equals. Then you can become informal coaches for each other.
the controlling mentor who can cause problems. She wants to maintain
the status quo because it’s a source of power for her fragile ego.
Short of recommending co-dependency therapy for her, you'll probably
have to put some space between the two of you to save your
fallen mentor situation is particularly hard to handle, because
often she has slipped from grace by no fault of her own. In fact in
a merger scenario, you may actually prefer to continue your
friendship with her rather than hunting for a more politically
expedient substitute. However, a good mentor will probably recognize
her demise from the "A" list and suggest you discreetly distance
yourself from her, at least for the time being.
the other hand, a mentor who has been accused of sexual harassment,
gross negligence, or so other major transgression is no longer
mentor material. Rather than going down with her ship, you'll need
to cultivate other people resources who have impeccable reputations
and move on.
good insurance policy for avoiding this situation is nurturing
friendships with a few noncompeting managers or community leaders,
simultaneously. Then, if a relationship with one should sour, you
still have the others for ongoing support. Few mentors mind sharing
a mentee unless they feel you are playing both ends against the
your career moves to higher levels, honor your mentors by playing
forward their tradition of helping younger colleagues. If you've
benefitted from their friendship, and learned from their example,
you will be an ideal candidate to take their place with a new