You’ve done the hard yards to lock in a great career mentor. You’re excited to learn from them, sharpen your skills, and grow your career.
But as my girl RiRi says, if you want to get the most out of your relationship, you have to work.
Securing an amazing mentor is a win, but it’s only the first part of the journey. You have to give as good as you get to unlock all the benefits of mentorship. As the mentee, that means driving the relationship, being clear on your needs, and putting in the hard yards.
Do this, and you’ll have an incredible mentoring experience. Don’t, and you’ll waste your time (and your mentor’s).
While there’s a lot of information out there on how to find a mentor, and how to be a great mentor, tips for being a good mentee are seriously lacking—as I learned the hard way.
Why being a good mentee matters just as much as securing a good mentor
My first experience as a mentee was lackluster, to say the least.
I signed up for a mentoring program for young professional women. I was feeling uninspired with my second job and wanted to make a career move to a company I really loved. But I didn’t quite know how to pivot. Like many, I figured having a mentor was a good way to learn from someone who had been there, done that.
The program organizers listened to what I wanted, matched me up with a mentor, and sent us on our way.
My mentor was great. But as the mentee, I left a little to be desired.
I felt like I needed to show that I had all the answers rather than asking for help. I thought my mentor could provide me with career introductions and networking opportunities, instead of support and guidance. I took a backseat in the relationship because I thought the program would do most of the work for us, as long as I showed up and followed the timeline for check-ins. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask for feedback once.
Embarrassing, I know.
At the end of the program, I got lucky and landed the career switch I wanted. But I DEFINITELY didn’t make the most out of the mentorship, and I squandered a really great opportunity to connect with an inspiring woman.
So how do you learn from my mistakes and be a good mentee? If you’ve secured a mentor (or you’re thinking about it), these tips for being a good mentee will help you make the most out of your experience.
First, be clear about your needs
Mentorship means something different to everyone.
For some, it might be a valuable way to gain insights from someone with more (similar) experience. For others, it’s an opportunity to get a completely new perspective from a person in a different industry or at a different stage in their career. Some need a person to keep them accountable. Some want more hands-on coaching.
Your mentor isn’t a mind reader, so you’ll need to be clear on what you need from your mentorship experience from the get-go.
Be specific about things like:
The career goals you’re hoping to accomplish
How the mentorship will help you reach those goals
The type of mentorship relationship you’re expecting
How often you’ll connect and communicate with your mentor
Let’s say you have a goal to improve your presentation skills because you’ve identified that this is important for your future career. In this case, your mentor could provide objective feedback on your verbal communication and public speaking.
Another example might be if you’re shooting for a promotion. Your mentor may be able to provide you with tips on how they progressed through their career and share insights on the skills you need to develop to climb up the ladder.
But in both these scenarios, you have to help them help you.
Not sure what you want? Don’t worry—it’s totally ok to be clear that you’re unclear. Let your mentor know, and they might even be able to work with you to brainstorm your needs.
Sit in the driver’s seat
Despite being the more senior one in the relationship, your mentor shouldn’t be the one pushing things along. They’re there to offer guidance, but you should be the one to take responsibility for your learning.
Set up regular meeting times. Come up with discussion topics on things you’d like to talk about. Follow up with your mentor if they’re supposed to send information your way or share an opportunity with you. Send agendas ahead of time. Manage up.
This keeps the focus on your career, which is precisely what the mentor is there to help you with.
It might feel uncomfortable to be the one taking charge, but trust me—your mentor will appreciate it, and you’ll gain a heck of a lot more from the experience.
Make plans to meet up in person
Don’t get me wrong: WhatsApp messages, Slacks, and emails are useful—particularly if you want to check something quickly or share a document for review. But nothing beats good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings.
An Educause survey found that mentors prefer when mentees ask for more personal ways to connect.
Because it makes them feel more valued while also giving you both an opportunity to build trust. It’s also insanely beneficial if your mentor can see how you communicate in person, especially if you’re trying to improve your communication skills.
Look for chances to invite your mentor for lunch, catch up for a coffee, or even set up a Zoom call. Doing this shows that you’re willing to put in the work—and it definitely won’t go unnoticed.
Try to finish every mentoring session by following up and booking the next one. This is the best way to keep the momentum going and to ensure you’re both being accountable in the relationship.
Check your expectations at the door
This goes hand-in-hand with the first tip on how to be a mentee, but it’s important to keep in mind for any mentorship experience. If you go into a relationship with overblown expectations of what you’re going to get out of it, you’re going to be disappointed.
Truth is, your mentor isn’t a superhero. They’re human, just like you.
This means they won’t be able to introduce you to Elon Musk or fast-track your career trajectory. And no matter how wise and all-knowing they seem, they don’t have all the answers. Putting your mentor on a pedestal and expecting the world of your mentor will only lead to disappointment or derail the relationship between the two of you.
Your mentor is there to offer support and help you work on yourself, but even they have their limitations. Communicate with your mentor about your shared expectations at the outset to make sure you’re on the same page. Then, as you progress through the mentoring process, set regular moments to check in and make sure your mutual expectations are being met.
Ask for (and be open to) feedback
Regardless of what stage you’re at in your career, feedback is the best gift that any mentor can provide. Feedback helps you grow and better yourself—even if it can be confronting to receive at first.
Any time you approach your mentor about a challenge or reflect on something that happened in your career, try to ask questions about how you could improve in the future. Ask things like “What do you think I could do differently next time?” or “Which parts are working and not working in my presentation?” When they do provide you with ideas, listen with an open mind and ask questions to clarify if anything doesn’t make sense. Take it all in like a sponge and consider how you can apply that information to future scenarios, even if you don’t use it.
Don’t forget: feedback doesn’t always have to come in the form of constructive criticism. Your mentor can also help identify areas where you’re doing well or opportunities you might have overlooked. This type of feedback is an amazing confidence booster and may help you discover strengths you never knew you had.
Last but not least, it goes both ways. Don’t be afraid to disagree with your mentor (respectfully!) or speak up if something isn’t meeting your expectations.
💡 If you don’t feel comfortable with how your mentor is providing feedback, it’s absolutely okay to give them with feedback on how they give feedback. We all respond differently to feedback, so be sure to share your communication preferences rather than letting them fester.
Think of your mentorship like any other professional relationship. You always want to respect your mentor’s time and optimize the session to get the best outcomes possible for everyone involved.
Here are a few ways to start out on the right foot for any mentoring session:
Prepare an agenda with two or three key topics you want to discuss
Send through any documents ahead of time if you want your mentor’s feedback
Provide any questions for your mentor and email them in advance
Keep tabs on your goals and share your progress
Preparation doesn’t just end when the meeting ends either. Stay organized and follow up on any agreements, send a thank you, and share any topics that you’re going to work on for future meetings.
Your mentor is a volunteer who’s giving up their time to help you. Honor that by making the most out of your precious time together.
Share your successes
Mentors take on the challenge of helping a mentee because they genuinely want to provide value and share their experience with others. Because of this, there’s nothing more rewarding for a mentor than knowing that they’ve made a positive impact on your career.
Landed that promotion? Finally conquered your fear of public speaking? Smashed through the project that you were stressing over? No matter what it is, let them know. They’ll be just as thrilled as you are and feel like they’re making a real difference in another person’s career.
There’s no textbook for the office that they teach in school. Nobody *intuitively* understands how to act in a professional environment. So it’s completely natural to have a lot of questions, particularly at the beginning of your career.
Having a mentor is incredibly valuable, so embrace it and be courageous in the relationship.
Be curious. Ask questions, even if you think they’re silly. Your mentor will be happy to answer them and provide you with the knowledge to navigate the work world.
Be bold. Show confidence in what you want and your ability to learn. A person who’s confident in themselves instills confidence in a mentor. If they believe in you and your drive, they’ll be more than willing to open doors, provide advice, and point you in the right direction.
Be open. It’s okay to not have the answers, to be unsure of yourself, or not know what’s coming up next. You don’t owe it to your mentor to be some wunderkind—but what you do owe them is honesty and transparency. If you share your challenges openly, they’ll be in a better position to help you overcome them.
Last but not least, show gratitude
Mentors are giving up their time to share their wisdom and advice with you. If you invest in the relationship and show gratitude, you’ll both have an incredibly rewarding experience and grow your professional network for the future.
Finally, remember to pay it forward! It may seem like a long way off, but one day you’ll be in a position to become a mentor yourself. Embrace this opportunity with open arms, and you’ll see how truly rewarding it is to help someone grow in their career.