The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Mentees

“Mentoring” is a popular term these days: it seems that at organizations around the world almost everyone is looking for a mentor, joining a peer mentoring program, being assigned a work mentor, or in need of external executive mentorship. While mentoring can be beneficial and rewarding, truly effective mentoring requires a clear set of expectations for the parties involved.

Two of our brightest young clients, Shanel Fields and Zach LaValley of athenahealth (a cloud-based healthcare IT company of disruptive innovators driven to make healthcare work as it should) have proposed thinking about mentoring by putting the mentee at the center of the relationship. In their view, mentoring is a self-motivated and self-directed process, grounded in the mentee having a goal in mind and seeking guidance on how to reach that goal.

We asked them to share their ideas and some guidance. Take it away, Shanel and Zach!

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A typical icebreaker question goes, “If you could spend one day with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” Ninety percent of the time we choose someone famous, brilliant, and deceased … and give our colleagues a glimpse of our exquisite taste in hero worship. However, if the question were reframed as, “If you could spend 30 minutes a month with a leader you know and admire, who would it be, and what would you do with that time?”—how would you answer then? All of a sudden Carlos, the VP on the fifth floor who delivered that knockout speech at the last company town hall, is giving Jean-Jacques Rousseau a run for his money.

Engaging and cultivating a relationship with a real, living mentor can increase confidence, promote greater self-awareness, highlight self-development and growth opportunities, and create access to powerful networks. Whether you reap such benefits, however, is largely dependent on how you approach, lead, and maintain the mentor relationship.

A quick Internet search for “mentorship” yields two bits of widely accepted wisdom, either of which may be a misconception focusing you in the wrong direction:

  1. You absolutely need to get a mentor right now.
  2. A “good” mentor is one who will follow a laundry list of best practices to ensure your success.
Regarding the first point, having a mentor can absolutely be a powerful asset for your personal and professional growth. However, if you are not able or willing to put in the work it takes to invest in the relationship and apply the knowledge you gain, then a mentor cannot help you, regardless of how successful they personally have been. Phil Ramone made this case when he said, “You can only mentor somebody if they want to be mentored.”

Beyond being a legendary recording engineer and producer, Ramone was a long-time board member of the National Mentoring Partnership, which has been instrumental in touching the lives of more than three million young people. He wholeheartedly believed that it was not the job of the mentor to change the mentee, just as Virgil did not give Dante a piggyback ride through the Inferno. A mentor can be a powerful guide and advisor on a mentee’s journey through life, but it is up to the mentee to put one foot in front of the other and lead the journey.

The second common misconception, that the success of the relationship lies in the preparedness and strengths of the mentor, is simply wrong. It is better to recognize that almost anyone can be a fantastic mentor given the right mentee. As a mentee, you must approach the relationship with intentionality, which means you need to understand where you’re trying to go, what you’re trying to learn, who you’re trying to become, and how you will do so.

One way to change the mindset is to call the relationship “menteeship” rather than “mentorship.” (For centuries we have referred to a similar relationship as “apprenticeship” rather than “expertship” or “mastership.”) A nomenclature change to "menteeship" reminds us that the focus, effort, and responsibility to advance one’s career are in the hands of the mentee, not the mentor.

To underscore that responsibility, we humbly channel a famous self-help book and offer The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Mentees:

One: Understand the value of being mentored. Even the very best mentor cannot hand you the job of your dreams. Mentors can, however, leverage their experience to help shape your plan for attaining that job. Mentors are unlikely to give you a detailed list of steps to follow to achieve success. They are even less likely to write you a check ensuring your financial independence. What they are likely to do is broaden your perspective on the world, or on a particular issue, by providing a more seasoned view and pulling from their frame of reference. Doing so will challenge you to think about a situation differently; it might open up a network of people you didn’t have access to previously; or it can illuminate options you hadn’t considered.

Two: Have an engaging approach. First, spend some time in self-reflection, crystalizing your goals and intentions for the relationship. Then do research on the most appropriate mentors based on the goals you’ve outlined. Start by using your own network to identify potential mentors and ask trusted colleagues for recommendations. In your initial outreach to your would-be mentor, try to stay away from “the m-word.” Asking a leader, “will you be my mentor?” may scare her off, since it sounds like a significant commitment and she may not know what your goals are. Instead, try something like, “Hi Carlos, our mutual friend Shanel suggested I reach out to you since you have a background in 17th Century bookbinding techniques. I’ve been looking to make a move into the bookbinding industry and am weighing a few options. By any chance, would you have twenty minutes to talk next Tuesday morning, say between 8 and 10am? Thanks, Zach.”

Three: Structure your meeting time. Highly successful people are busy people, and busy people tend to get even busier as a day or a week goes on. Think strategically about when and how often you want to meet with your mentor. Tuesday or Thursday mornings are often good time slots, but stay away from breakfast meetings (or food in general) until the relationship becomes more established. Eating reduces valuable talking time. But whenever you meet, it’s up to you, not your mentor, to schedule the meetings. Be as flexible as possible to accommodate your mentor’s schedule: start by asking what times he prefers and go from there.

Four: Structure your meeting content. If you use Outlook or another calendar program, your meeting invitation should provide a brief statement of your objectives for the meeting. For example, “I’m considering a career move, and would value your feedback on a few options I’ve laid out.” Such a statement gives your mentor a heads-up, shows ownership, and allays his fear of having to craft solutions from scratch. Be clear and deliberate with yourself about your objectives for the meeting: Are they reasonable? Are they attainable in this meeting? The best mentor-mentee conversations are ones where the mentee frames the topics in engaging ways, and provides the mentor with a framework to riff on. Ask open-ended questions and stay focused.

Five: If it’s not working, fix it. “Not working” may mean you have not appropriately set goals for the relationship, or that you didn’t choose the right mentor for the goal you were trying to achieve. Here’s a simple illustration: you want to run a marathon, but the only athlete you know is Michael Phelps. If you expect Michael to mentor you on how to run more efficiently, or provide tips on when to hydrate during a race, you are likely to be disappointed. However, if your approach is to ask Michael (a) for his best tips on mental toughness and effective training, as well as (b) for connections he made on the US Track and Field team at the Olympics, then you are much more likely to have a positive mentoring experience. Periodically assess the guidance you are seeking from a particular mentor and ensure that it matches the value they are able to provide.

Six: Apply the knowledge you gain. We all know people who complain about an ongoing difficulty but never take action to resolve it. Even after receiving advice and offers to help, they seem set on lamenting. At a certain point, we no longer feel valued as an advisor, stop listening, and probably disregard that person’s problems altogether. Don’t be a complainer; be a doer! If your mentor provides you with a suggestion or the name of someone to follow up with, explore the suggestion or contact the person—and then report back. Make sure your mentor feels you are valuing her time and advice.

Seven: Pass it on. Mentors want to see that you grow, that their advice is being leveraged, and that you are “paying it forward.” Your ability to pass on what you’ve learned by mentoring others will give your mentor more gratification than you can imagine. And, as well, make sure that you are returning value to your mentor. To take the relationship to the next level, ask what you can do to help them. One secret of mentoring is that in a great relationship the mentor often learns and benefits as much as the mentee does.

Remember, by taking the time to prepare and think deliberately about how to get the most out of your mentor you’ll increase the chances of reaching your goals as well as the satisfaction you derive from the relationship.

Good luck! #menteeship

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Many thanks to Shanel and Zach for some great advice. If you have examples of, or insights on, mentorship or menteeship, we’d love to hear them—send us a note at newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com.

“The best is he who calls people to the best. And those who heed the call are also blessed.”
—Hesiod