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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 office.

  • 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.

  • If 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.

  • Don’t 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.

  • If you 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 in touch.

  • 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 acquisitions.)

Both 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.

It's 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 friendship.

The 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.

On 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.

A 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 middle.

As 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 generation.

 Career Dimensions ● 214-208-1706 ●

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