How to make the most of a mentor

 4 July 2014

How do you approach finding a mentor and then making sure you get the most from them? Mark Taylor from education and mentoring charity Brightside outlines what you should do for a successful mentoring relationship.

However perfect a mentor looks on paper, you won’t get the most out of mentoring if you don’t have the right chemistry.
However perfect a mentor looks on paper, you won’t get the most out of mentoring if you don’t have the right chemistry.

A mentor is a person who uses their knowledge and experience to help you to achieve your goals. They might advise you on courses or career moves, help you to pin down your objectives, put you in touch with useful contacts or simply encourage you when you are struggling.

A mentor is in a unique position: they’re part of your professional life, but they’re not your colleague or your boss, so they can give you help and advice that is honest, useful and specific.

Finding a mentor

Qualities to look for

There are lots of qualities you should look for in a mentor. They should be:

  • Experienced: This can help inform your conversations.
  • Approachable: You need to be comfortable talking to your mentor about a wide range of topics, some of which may be difficult.
  • Keen: Mentoring someone is a big commitment, so your mentor needs to be keen to help you. That doesn’t mean finding someone unusually generous: many of the best mentors get as much out of mentoring as their mentees do.
  • Honest: A good mentor can help you avoid big mistakes,  but only if they’re willing to point them out. You need to find a mentor who won’t shy away from telling you the truth when it’s difficult to hear.
  • Unbiased: Your mentor shouldn’t have any conflicts of interest that will stop them from giving you the best advice. For example, someone you’re currently working with can’t be an ideal mentor, because your decisions will affect them too strongly.

You need a mentor who won’t shy away from telling you the truth when it’s difficult to hear.

But remember: however perfect a mentor looks on paper, you won’t get the most out of mentoring if you don’t have the right chemistry.

It’s not easy to plan this in advance, even if you already know your mentor and get on well with them. So start your mentoring relationship with the understanding that it might not work out.

Many mentoring relationships start with a ‘chemistry meeting’: a non-committal meeting at which you and your mentor can get to know each other and decide whether you think the relationship will work.

Where to look

  • Friends and family: Someone you know well can be easier to approach. But you may find that they are more difficult to talk to honestly, or they have more assumptions about your skills and interests.
  • Your network: If you know someone through your work or your studies who fits the bill, this can be a great place to start. Remember, you’re not just limited to your own contacts: you can ask for recommendations.
  • A mentoring scheme: Mentoring schemes match mentors and mentees who don’t know each other already. They are available through employers, educational institutions, charities and other organisations, so if you can’t find a mentor on your own there are lots of opportunities to help you.
  • Elsewhere: There’s no limit to where a mentor can come from. You might approach someone you admire even if you don’t have an existing connection. It might be more difficult to persuade them to mentor you, but there’s no reason they can’t still be a great mentor.

When you’re looking for a mentor, don’t feel you have to find one perfect person and stick with them. You might have initial meetings with a few different potential mentors, or even have two mentors at once if that fits your objectives best.

How to ask for a mentor

How you ask will depend on who you are asking. If you already have a good relationship with a potential mentor, it will be easier. But you will need to be direct about what you are asking for and make it clear that it’s okay for the person you are approaching to decline.

If they accept because they feel like they have to, your mentoring relationship won’t get off to the best start.

If you don’t know the person you’re approaching so well, there are a few key steps to starting the relationship:

Don’t feel you have to find one perfect person and stick with them. 

  • Explain clearly what you are asking, so that they can make an informed decision about whether it is suitable for them. Suggest a structure, such as an hour-long meeting every two weeks.
  • Show that you respect them and won’t waste their time. Explain the work and preparation you are willing to put into the relationship, and that you are willing to be flexible about the schedule.
  • Tell them why you want them to mentor you. This is mainly about respecting their expertise and experience, but a bit of flattery won’t hurt.

Making the most of your mentor

Set goals

Many things in life work best when you have specific goals to work towards. It’s particularly important for mentoring: if you don’t set clear goals, your mentor might have entirely the wrong idea of what you want to achieve. You might even end up working against each other.

Try to set goals on a variety of timescales. If you know where you want to be in five years, think about what you need to do in the next six months to get started. If you know what the next step you want to take is, think about where it could take you in five years.

Set expectations

It’s important that you and your mentor have shared expectations about the mentoring process. This includes:

  • How often you will be in touch
  • How much time you will spend talking
  • How long the relationship will continue.

You should be prepared to recognise when the time comes to end it constructively. 

This way you won’t get frustrated if your mentor isn’t giving you the help you want, and your mentor won’t feel like they’re being asked for too much.

At the same time, you’ll be committing to a certain level of dedication to the mentoring process, so your mentor won’t feel like the work they’re putting in is for nothing.

Be honest

Your mentor can’t give you the best help unless you are honest with them. This can sometimes be difficult: you might worry that your mentor will disapprove of your decisions or try to steer you into a course of action you don’t want.

If you find it difficult to be honest with your mentor, it might be a sign that the mentoring relationship isn’t working.

Review

Things might change during your mentoring relationship. In fact, if your mentoring is going well, things should change. You’ll need to regularly review your goals and expectations to make sure that they are still suitable.

It can be easy to let this slip, especially if your mentoring relationship feels comfortable and successful, so decide in advance how often you will review your progress – for example, every three months – and include your mentor in the process.

Know when, and how, to end

A mentoring relationship doesn’t have to last forever. Many will come to a natural end at some point. This might happen if:

  • You reach a particular career goal
  • You change your mind about what your goals are
  • Your mentor moves into a different area or retires
  • You start working closely with your mentor in a way that isn’t compatible with a mentoring relationship.

You don’t have to plan when to end the relationship when you start out, but you should be prepared to recognise when the time comes and end it constructively, reviewing what you have achieved and what your next steps should be.

Find out more about education and careers at Bright Knowledge.


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