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Are You a Good Mentor and Mentee?

Stacy A. Alexejun

The justice for whom I clerked once told me that mentors are everywhere, be they good or bad: follow the good ones and learn from the bad.

This is my ninth year out of law school, and I think she’s right. If you think about it, “mentor” is just a fancier synonym for “teacher.” And we learn just as much, if not more, from the people who we do not wish to emulate.

I’ve also realized that her advice works the other way: mentees are everywhere. A good mentor leads by example, and someone more junior to you is always watching.

No matter what our age or level of experience, each one of us is a mentor and a mentee. I don’t pretend to be an expert (I’m learning everyday- see above), but based on my experiences so far, here are some tips that I’ve acquired:

Tips to be a good mentor:

  1. Maintain confidentiality. This seems obvious, but it doesn’t always play out. Trust is paramount in a good mentoring relationship.
  2. Keep an open door, literally and figuratively. It can take a lot of courage for a mentee to approach you, and if the mentee senses that you’re too busy or not interested, he or she is not likely to come back.
  3. Take the initiative to check in. If you haven’t heard from your mentee in awhile, ask how he or she is doing. Don’t assume that no news is good news.
  4. Make a point to get outside the office. While there’s nothing wrong with meeting at the office, your mentee may be more comfortable and candid over lunch or at happy hour.
  5. Get to know your mentee personally (and vice-versa). It shows that you’re invested and helps build trust. It can also help you understand the way your mentee thinks and acts at work. Likewise, sharing your own personal stories and interests will help humanize the mentoring relationship.
  6. Be an active listener. A mentee wants to hear what you have to say, but it’s equally important that you ask about and appreciate his or her perspective.
  7. Keep in mind that advice—as opposed to action—may be all the help that your mentee needs (or wants). If you’re inclined to escalate an issue that your mentee brought to your attention, let him or her know, and ask for permission first.
  8. Share your milestones, and help celebrate those of your mentee. A good mentoring relationship is more than just problem-solving.

Tips to be a good mentee:

  1. Remember that your mentor is a volunteer. While happy to help, it’s nice for your mentor to know that he or she is appreciated.
  2. Be proactive. Don’t wait for your mentor to contact you. Your mentor may be distracted with his or her own commitments or may incorrectly assume that you don’t need anything (see #3 above).
  3. Be patient. Don’t give up on a mentor if the fit is not immediate. It takes time and work to cultivate a good mentoring relationship.
  4. Keep an open mind. A good mentor gives constructive advice and won’t always tell you what you want to hear.
  5. Help us help you. We can listen, we can give advice, we can take action, or we could do all or none of the above. Be specific with your goals and how we can help.
  6. If you have a serious or time-sensitive issue, don’t wait for it to get worse. Provided the trust is there, seek out your mentor’s help as soon as possible.
  7. Follow up. If you committed to taking a step as a result of something we discussed, let us know what you did and how it went. It will help inform our mentoring relationship, as well as others, going forward. And we will appreciate knowing that you’re invested.
  8. Remember that a mentoring relationship can be formal or informal. If it doesn’t work out with your formal mentor, the chances are good that it’s nothing personal. Seek out an informal mentor, and give it another shot.

What tips can you share on being a good mentor or mentee?