Note: I originally wrote a version of this blog post, as a college student, in February 2013 titled “Mentors are Underrated.” Mentors are definitely still underrated, but I want to republish it here with a focus on how to drive mentorship, especially from the mentee’s perspective.
I feel extremely lucky to have great mentors in my life, especially since it’s a topic that wasn’t explicitly covered by my professors or academic advisers. Most college students don’t have a mentor, which is a missed opportunity. Some entrepreneurs don’t have a mentor, which is detrimental to their success. Based on my experience, mentors are incredibly underrated, to both college students and entrepreneurs. There’s no need to wait until you’re a full-time professional to find a mentor, in fact, the sooner you start cultivating mentorship, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
There are plenty of great blog posts out there on how to find a mentor, so I want to focus on how to maintain a mentorship that is productive for both parties involved.
There’s a term we use in-industry called “managing up,” and I’ve found many parallels between successful employees who can manage up and successful mentees who benefit from the mentors in their life. Full disclosure, I hated the term “manage up” when I first heard it. It felt like a scapegoat for managers who didn’t understand how to develop their people and when used maliciously, it can mean that. However, if used correctly, it will put you ahead of the pack.
So, what are the keys to “managing up” and how do they apply to mentorships?
🔑 Understand the power dynamic. The power dynamic tends to lie with the manager or mentor in these relationships, which can cause some folks to freeze or make bad decisions in certain situations. It’s important to understand this underlying dynamic and how it impacts your relationship with the other person (and this goes for both sides).
🔑 Get to know your mentor with a User Manual. And provide them with yours! User manuals are worthy of their own post (Brad Feld’s is a great one), but the point is that User Manuals allow you to get to know someone a lot quicker than by osmosis. At the very least, you should understand the following things about your mentor:
How do they prefer to communicate? email, text, phone calls, facetime, etc. Only on weekdays, only on weekends, after 5 pm, etc. etc. etc. Ask the question and respect the answer.
How much time do they have to dedicate to providing mentorship? Some people will struggle to set a limit on this, but you should try to get a baseline. This isn’t so you can take up every single minute they do have available (you could be one of many), but it’ll help you understand how to formulate the asks you make of them in a way that will get you what you need.
What are they hoping to get out of it? If this is hard for them to answer, they’re likely not your mentor and just someone who is willing to give you insight into something they know about — and there’s a big difference! The latter can be really helpful, too. It’s important to know that what they’re interested in getting out of it doesn’t conflict with what you need from a mentor. This does two other things: 1) leaves the door open in the future if you’re able to surprise & delight them in a way that helps them accomplish their goals, 2) this sets the tone from the beginning so you don’t expect things from your mentor that they’re not looking for (e.g. employment).
🔑 Productive mentorship is driven by the mentee. Your goal should be to drive the relationship and drive it in the most efficient and effective way possible. The answers to the questions above give you guidance on how to do this. What’s this look like in practice? You should be setting up the meetings, you should provide agendas for your meetings with your mentor, and you should have some discipline around a post-meeting mechanism to keep them informed.
🔑 Pay it forward. Did you learn something from your mentor that you think others could benefit from? Pay it forward. Have you met someone that reminds you of yourself, or has similar dreams as you? Pay it forward. Remember that mentorship comes in all sizes and goes in different directions, not all of your mentors will have more experience or even be older than you.
Much like any healthy relationship, mentorships don’t have to last forever. Don’t put that sort of expectation on the relationship, especially when you’re looking for a new mentor. The mentors in my life have ebb-and-flowed with my interests, jobs, and projects going on at the time. You may have a super specific project mentor or a much broader life mentor.
You can have more than one — and you probably should. Build your “bench” of mentors and know who to call into the game at what time. The odds of you finding one person to serve all of your mentor-needs is slim. Start with one, understand the strengths of that relationship and also the gaps, so you can find other mentors, or resources, to fill them.
Keep it informal! You should be able to call your mentor by their first name. It needs to be someone that you respect, admire, but also someone you feel comfortable being vulnerable with. The whole point of mentorship is to help you grow and you can’t do that without a bit of vulnerability. The single thread that flows through most mentorship is actually just friendship.
Mentors are people, but they’re not your only source of this same type of learning. Don’t forget books, communities like dev.to, podcasts, a carefully curated twitter feed, etc.
I’ll go through a few examples of my own mentorship situations to better illustrate some of this.
One of my mentors is my first real boss from when I was 16. For the first few (and very formative) years of my career, I never made a move without consulting her. She leads with empathy, passion, and an unflappable demeanor. As I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve only tried to emulate her more and pay forward what I learned from her.
Three people I would consider mentors of mine were also my direct reports at one time. It’s rare, but every now and then you’ll meet people in your professional life that are the yin-to-your-yang. I like to keep those people close to me because they make me better every day and that’s ultimately what mentorship is about. Each of them cover different areas too: data, design, and leadership.
One of my mentors is extremely busy. She has a high-profile job so it’s rare that I take her off the bench (aside from soaking up everything I can from afar), but when I do, the impact is huge. It’s important to have someone like this for when the circumstances call for it.
Another mentor of mine is in higher education. Her role in developing students and building a community has been instrumental in informing my own leadership skills and philosophies.
And honestly, one of my mentors is my mom. She’s a successful real estate entrepreneur who has built a brand from the ground up, as a second career. I’ve learned a lot from her about how to listen to my customer, guide them, and set them up for success.
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