I work in a field where mentorship is not only highly valued, but an essential part of your career path. Without it you never learn the ins and outs, you never learn the skills you need to succeed in your field, and you never build the connections needed to land employment. Over the course of my career I have had mentors come in many forms: boss, peer, professor, and, of course, the traditional role of a designated mentor where their entire goal was to work with me to better prepare me for the next step in my career.
Through all of this, I’ve learned some major lessons about the best ways to maximize the benefits of your relationship from the mentee’s side.
Learn to Love Feedback
Feedback is the biggest and most obvious benefit of having a mentor. Learn to love it! It can be uncomfortable to hear you faults and inadequacies, but the entire reason your mentor is there is to help you grow and improve. That is impossible if you are not receptive to their feedback. Don’t get defensive. Don’t break down and cry. Recognize that they want you to succeed, and that the best way for them to help you do that is to correct your mistakes.
You know you have a great mentor when you’re hearing positive feedback from them, as well. There will be things you’re doing right, and they will recognize them. Recognize it in yourself, and allow it to build confidence, but not to the point of arrogance.
Constantly Be Improving Yourself
If you get all that feedback, and then do nothing with it, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Practice the skill during your off hours, even if it’s something as simple as how to handle specific conversations. One thing I’ve tried to do over my career is seek out workshops that target my areas of weakness, and attend every last one of them. One of my first bosses told me it was why they sent me out on difficult assignments. “I see you going to all these workshops, trying to improve yourself as much as you can. You’re new, but I’d rather send out someone new who’s trying to get better every day than someone with decades of experience who’s been treading in muddy water all these years.”
That was powerful to me, and has helped me never become complacent about where I stand. In twenty years you’ll still see me continuing my education, because there is always, always, always something you can be learning and improving.
Build Personal Relationships
It’s good to be professional, but build a personal relationship with your mentor within that context. You’re likely spending a lot of time together if you’re getting feedback about your performance, so there should be plenty of time to ask about their weekend, the kids, the wife, hobbies, etc. I’m not suggesting you become a creeper, but have conversations that real people would have with each other. Not only will it help build your bond and trust with each other, but that bond and trust will help you later down the line as you need references and networking. Your mentor can become one of the most important connections in your career. Build a positive relationship now so that you’re not just begging for a favor down the line.
Keep In Touch
If you do need a favor down the line, you’re going to have to be able to reach them. I’ve lived a fairly transient life, and while I’ve kept in touch with a majority of my mentors, there is one that I regrettably did not. Life got really busy for the both of us. People moved, phone numbers changed, emails got lost in the shuffle. I regret this professionally, but also on a personal level as I really valued that personal relationship we had built.
When you are keeping in touch, don’t just contact them when you need something. Keep them updated when you reach professional milestones, being sure to thank them for their huge contribution to your career. When something new happens in your industry, ask them their opinion on it. When you’re wondering how they’re doing in general, shoot them an email asking them just that. Don’t flood their inbox, but be in touch often enough that they remember you exist, and that they know you remember them and all they have done for you.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
During your mentorship, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s why you’re there. If something comes up that makes your scratch your head, or a situation arises that makes you question ethical bounds, be sure to get their advice.
After your mentorship concludes, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Things come up in everyone’s profession that will make them think twice about an upcoming decision or recent reaction. Going to them when these things happen will not only benefit you via their advice. It will show them you view them as an expert, worth drawing knowledge from even after the conclusion of your formal mentorship. It’s also a good way to keep the lines of communication open, keeping in touch.
In a nutshell, everything I’ve learned has come down to total humility, a good work ethic, and building and maintaining relationships. Be eager for feedback, even when it’s “negative.” Use it to identify areas where you can actively improve, and then go do the things you need to do in order to make those improvements. Ask questions when you don’t know the answers, and build a strong enough relationship that it will last for the long haul. I’ve been so lucky to have such great mentors; I truly consider them some of the best people I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, in any capacity. And I feel so lucky that these relationships have turned into something deeper: friendships built on professionalism and respect.