Making the most of your mentor relationship: how to avoid common pitfalls

All of us have hit a point in our working life where we realise that we need a bit of guidance. Often, we immediately think of a particular leader or expert that would be the best person to talk with – a mentor. This is a great starting point, because context can be everything in a great mentoring relationship, but before you go much further, I want to share a few common pitfalls that impact on that mentor relationship you are so keen to establish.

  1. Asking for Time from a Mentor

I can’t count the number of times that a potential mentee has contacted me with the opening line of, ‘I have wanted to call you for months, but was afraid you were too busy’ or they say, ” I wanted to call you to talk it through, but then thought you would be too busy so I did not ring.”

I get it. Really, I do. If you are asking for support of a person that you see as ‘expert’, ‘senior’ and ‘busy’ then it  can be hard to conjure up a way to introduce what you are looking for. However, my advice is – get over it! Think about what made you think of the person in the first place and use that context to request a thirty minute meeting to talk through the topic. It is the rare leader that would not have time for that (and, if they say no then it is probably just as well that you move on to another mentor).

2. Respect the time 

Whether your mentor is volunteering their time or if you are in a commercial arrangement and paying for the sessions makes no difference – respect the time that has been allocated.

I recently had an experience with a client that requested my services as mentor. Fantastic! We had a wonderful first session where we could really see how we could work together. This was followed by cancellation after cancellation. So, I simply said that if we could not agree on the next session, then it would best to terminate the contract. Why? Because I don’t want to waste my time or the time of the mentee’s. If they are avoiding the sessions, there may be a reason – maybe they are just not ready to do the work. Fortunately, in this instance, we established a new schedule and are going strong with the relationship.

If you are avoiding sessions with your mentor, then take a moment to ask yourself why you are not making it a priority for yourself. The answers could be quite revealing for you.

3. Mentoring is not Networking 

Generally, I have seen this more inside organisations than in external or professional mentor sessions, but it does happen. The mentor is selected because the individual wants to build a relationship with a senior person for networking or career reasons – not necessarily for mentoring.

In a recent group session, senior mentors shared the behaviour they see when they think that ‘networking’ is the primary reason for the session. These include:

  • Over-emphasis on office ‘politics’ topics
  • Requests to be introduced to other senior leaders
  • Excessive compliments to the mentor during the session
  • Lack of focus specific topics related to the mentee’s development or areas of interest

When you plan your mentorship relationship, take a moment to think about your intent. Networking is not a bad thing – but, it is not the primary purpose of having a mentor.

4. You decide your future – don’t ask to be told what to do

An innocent but common pitfall is a mentee throwing in the towel and asking, ‘Tell me what I should do!”  A mentor can’t do that – only you can decide what you should do.

A mentor’s role is to guide you through the discussion with the right questions, some good examples from experience and help you see the alternatives available to you. However, you decide what to do next.

5. Follow-up! 

Your mentor has invested in you. Through your conversations together, the mentor has shared their know-how and insights to assist you in making your own decisions. She is interested in more than just the individual sessions – she is interested in the outcomes.

I have the opportunity to voluntarily mentor a number of individuals. While I also have a number of professional mentor clients, I still seek to have a balance of volunteering my time so that I can ‘give back’. I also appreciate the conversations and questions that come up for these talented folks who are working through career and business issues.

I recently met up with a former mentee who I had not seen for a number of years. We had a great conversation about the next steps for her career. She had a number of areas she wanted to focus on and was a little concerned about taking a leap to a new role. It was a great discussion which left her with a few clear avenues to explore. A few weeks later, I received a quick note from her telling me the decision she made and why she felt it was the right way to go. For me, this is a great example of a simple follow-up. As her mentor, I was really happy to hear the update.

However ,as much as the individual will be grateful for the time, all too often they don’t follow-up with how they are doing. Of course, there is no obligation to follow-up, but remember – the mentor is invested in you even if it is one conversation, so think about how you might provide just a quick update. It will be appreciated.



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