Many of us have spent our careers stumbling upon or seeking out good mentors as we’ve worked our way through the weeds of college, graduate school, activism, and life. No matter where we are on our journey, chances are we’ve accumulated some knowledge to share with those coming up behind. We need mentors for sure, but we also are mentors. Understanding how to help mentees achieve their goals in work and life can also give us a better sense of what we need from our own mentors.
Here I share we should seek to be mentors and how to be the mentors we all wish we’d had.
Identify why you want to mentor
Being a mentor is a gift to yourself and to another who is seeking to find their way. Mentorship often happens by accident—we meet someone who reminds us of ourselves and we make a coffee date, send an email with advice, or suggest a pathway. But what if we made decisions about mentorship with more intention and mindfulness?
Take some time to sketch out for yourself why mentorship matters and what you imagine helping mentees to look like in your life. Are you looking to mentor someone in your field or profession? A fellow activist looking to take the leadership reins? What kind of world do you want to help build, and who could you mentor to help you build that world?
Discover what you can offer
All of us continue to need mentors for our entire lives. That childhood fantasy that we might grow up to be adults who have all the answers just gets more and more fantastical as we age. Helping mentees thrive means recognizing that we don’t need to be perfect to support them in their journey.
So figure out what you have to offer your mentees. Did you figure out how to manage the difficulties of being working class in an academy that assumes we all have a safety net to front us some cash? Have you gathered the skills to send emails to unsupportive advisors? Who in your orbit can benefit from what you’ve learned? What has been paid to you, and how can you pay it forward?
Be honest about what you can do
Helping mentees (and yourself) requires being honest about your own limits and boundaries. Do you have time for one coffee date a month? A few emails per quarter? Twice-a-semester lunches? Everybody’s busy, and mentoring someone should be a fun and useful process for both parties. If you’ve got limited time, just be honest about that. Clear boundaries up front are key to being a mentor—and wanting to mentor again.
For those of us from marginalized communities, this is particularly important. The demand on us to mentor those who are like us can be overwhelming, if only because there are so few of us in the academy at all. Think seriously about how to protect your own time and space as you are also helping mentees. You can’t mentor everyone, and being honest about that is important for authentic mentoring relationships.
Be on the lookout for mentees
Many mentoring relationships happen organically, but once you’ve got a good understanding of your skills and your goals, don’t be afraid to make that mentoring relationship explicit. Mentees often don’t even know what they’re looking for—don’t be afraid to tell them it’s you!
Articulate mentorship connections
Helping mentees succeed means communicating explicitly in ways that can help your mentees move through roadblocks and continue their own journeys. Once you “click” with someone and have a sense for the ways you can be helpful to each other, make it clear that you are on that journey.
When we think about our own mentors, we remember the professor who tapped us and said we had something special, the older graduate student who promised we could get through that tough course, the person whose example we found ourselves following. When in doubt, make the tap and tell that mentee that you see their potential and want to help. These are the lifelines that pull ourselves and each other through the minefields of work inside and outside the academy.
We also tend to think about mentoring as a two-person relationship. Sometimes, though, mentoring is about connecting others to others as well—think of it as a multi-way relationship. Given the demands on our time and energy, remembering this can make mentorship a less daunting addition to our schedules. This might mean connecting a group of mentees for a shared lunch about shared issues or pointing one mentee to another who can offer mentoring, even if your mentee doesn’t see that right away.
You and your mentee are different people
We often find ourselves mentoring those who remind us of ourselves. We see that struggling young writer, remember our own struggles, and find ourselves offering the advice we would have given ourselves back then.
This is by all means part of mentoring, but helping mentees also means listening hard enough to understand the ways our mentors are like us and not like us. The goal of mentoring is to help our mentees over the speed bumps that we know from experience lay ahead.
The goal is not to create ourselves again. A strong mentoring relationship recognizes our commonalities and our differences. And this only works if we truly listen to our mentees and hear what they want for themselves. We guide them, but our mentees should guide us as well.
Know that mentees are often nervous about asking too much from us, be it time, energy, or coffee. Remind your mentees that you wouldn’t be mentoring them if you didn’t find it a valuable use of your time. Helping mentees find and enjoy their career journey is also part of finding and enjoying yours.