I will never forget my first meeting with my first formal mentor. To set the scene, I was new in my career, new to my organization, and new to participating in a formal mentoring program. Painfully aware of my overall lack of experience, I arrived at the meeting expecting my mentor to tell me what to do. I sat across from him, notepad open, pen poised, ready to write down all the wise things I was sure he would say. So, imagine my surprise when it turned out that he had not prepared a lecture or even a list of things we should discuss. Furthermore, he had no intention of doling out wisdom or the secrets to success. Instead, he wanted me to do the talking. He wanted me to tell him what I needed to work on, what I intended to get out of our partnership, and how I envisioned achieving my goals. I was dumbfounded. I was the wide-eyed new mentee, and he was the seasoned expert—shouldn’t he be taking charge?
My initial naivete about mentoring roles is all too common among new mentees, who often come to the partnership with either a conscious or subconscious expectation that their more experienced mentor will take the reins and drive the relationship. To dispel this misconception of the mentor’s role, we need to look no further than the definition of a mentor: A mentor is defined as an experienced and trusted adviser. Mentors use their expertise and knowledge to advise and support—not to direct, decide, or do. If a mentor is directing outcomes, they inadvertently defeat the purpose of mentoring, which is to help mentees learn to lead themselves.
Thus, for effective mentoring to take place, the onus for driving the relationship must remain with the mentee, with the mentor seated firmly in a supportive role. Here are some things mentees can do (or mentors can encourage them to do) to take initiative and responsibility for building and maintaining mentoring momentum.
- Define goals and expectations. Chances are, if a person signs up for a formal mentoring program, they have at least some idea of what they hope to gain from it. Mentees should commit time to reflecting not only on specific objectives they would like to achieve, but also their reasons for those objectives and how they hope the mentor will be able to help. This introspection will enable mentees to clearly articulate their goals and expectations and prepare them for larger conversations with their mentor about their partnership and the Mentoring Action Plan.
- Initiate meetings and discussions. A mentoring pair’s first meeting should include a discussion of how much time they would like to commit to the partnership and how often they would like to meet. Once these parameters are established, the mentee is responsible for initiating meetings and discussions. This could be as simple as sending a recurring calendar invite or creating a calendar reminder to reach out after certain events or milestones. Another best practice is to end each meeting by answering the question, “When should we meet again?”
- Come prepared. Mentees who make the most of their mentoring experience will come to meetings with clear goals (“Today, I would like to accomplish…”), a list of topics or questions to discuss, and their own ideas or solutions for which to seek feedback from their mentor. They won’t show up unprepared expecting their mentor to do the work for them or tell them what to do, but rather will take the initiative to identify their own thoughts and ideas and arrive ready to ask for feedback, advice, and new perspectives to help them decide their next steps.
- Take initiative. Mentees sometimes comment that they wish their mentor would reach out more often or suggest more learning activities. However, these mentees may not have communicated their expectations to their mentor nor taken any action to resolve the issue for themselves. Have they increased their own outreach or researched and suggested additional learning activities to their mentor? The most successful mentees are those who take initiative rather than waiting for someone else to intuit what they would like or make it happen for them.
- Follow through. Mentees can drive the relationship forward and keep the partnership on track with one simple behavior: following through. By doing what they say they will do when they say they will do it, mentees demonstrate that they are serious about their goals and value their mentor’s time.