Sustaining Mentor Relations over the Long Term

by | Mar 14, 2017

Finding mentors can be enormously helpful in navigating your career paths. But once you have identified great mentors and set up those connections, how do you keep those relationships strong? What do mentors do and what don’t they do? And how can you be a good mentee?

Here’s how to keep your new mentoring relationships strong over the long term.

Set reasonable expectations

A mentor can inspire you, support you, and help you meet your goals. But a mentor is not your fairy godmother, parent, therapist, research assistant, or project manager. They can’t magically fix all your professional woes, guarantee you a job, shield you from rejection, make you meet deadlines, sort out your personal life, or ensure you finish your dissertation.

They can, however, point you to great resources and tools, show you opportunities, and share their experiences and expertise in specific areas. It’s up to you to integrate that mentoring and get your work done. In other words, being a mentee is an active practice.

Do your homework

Not every mentor works the same way. Some enjoy it when you drop by their office hours to chat while others prefer you email them to set up a time to talk about set topics. Some mentors enjoy hearing regular updates about your progress toward your goals while others prefer to offer concrete advice about specific problems you’re facing. Some mentors prefer to email you calls for papers and job announcements when they come across them while others are better at introducing you to people at conferences and events in person.

Observe how your mentors prefer to engage with their mentees and figure out how you can use their preferred modes of support to make progress on your goals.

Build your mentoring team

I’ve been talking about mentors (plural) for a reason. It’s unlikely you will find a single person who can mentor you on everything and even more unlikely that someone has the time to mentor you on everything.

Building a team of mentors means that you can get a diverse range of advice and support from folks with expertise in different areas. It also takes the pressure off a single mentor—if one mentor isn’t available this semester or doesn’t have much in the way of advice on a particular issue, you know you can go to other members of your team.

Figure out what each of your mentors excels at (and doesn’t), the way they like to mentor, their communication style, and the amount of time they have for mentoring so you can ensure good mentoring relationships. And don’t discount the value of introducing your mentors to each other!

Meet your deadlines

Your mentors are busy people; although they clearly care about you and are committed to helping you succeed, they also have schedules, deadlines, and other work and life responsibilities.

If you want them to read a draft of a dissertation chapter, give you feedback on a conference presentation, write a letter of recommendation, or share their thoughts on future career paths you might take, be sure to tell them exactly when you will get them the materials they need. And then follow through.

Reciprocity is key

Mentorship is a two-way street. Yes, your mentors can (and should) support you in finding and following your unique path. But you should also support them.

Send them resources, articles, tools, or opportunities that are relevant to their projects. Introduce them to people working on similar issues or with whom they might hit it off. Ask them how their classes or committees are going.

If they talk about their kids or partners, remember their names to show you care about your mentors’ lives the same way they care about yours (of course, not all of your mentors will talk about their personal lives, which should also be respected).

Managing conflict

Like any relationship, the ones with your mentors will hit some rocky patches. You might experience miscommunication, conflicting (or unstated) expectations, and general disagreements about decisions or career issues.

Sometimes you’ll disappoint your mentors and sometimes your mentors will disappoint you. The important thing is to remember that you’re all human. When conflict does arise, acknowledge it first to yourself and then to your mentors. If you messed up, apologize. If they messed up, (hopefully) they will have enough confidence and respect for you to apologize as well.

Ultimately, your career (and your life) is yours—you are the one who has to live it, so if your mentor is advising something that will make you truly miserable, thank them for their advice but don’t follow it.

You are allowed to disagree with your mentors. This is part of that active mentee practice discussed above and the foundation of any solid relationship. Making a different decision, not taking that job, studying something they don’t work on, or choosing a different path than your mentor won’t tank your relationship (something mentees often worry about, especially when building non-academic careers). A good mentor will respect and support your decisions.

Mentorship evolves

Your mentoring team will also morph over time. Someone who is a great mentor this year, who has the expertise and experience to advise you on a particular set of issues, might not be as great a fit in the future because your priorities or communication style will shift. That’s okay.

You’ll add new mentors as you move through and create your life (and they’ll add new mentees). When this happens, stay in touch with former mentors—even if they’re not actively mentoring you any more, they care about you and would probably love to hear about the awesome stuff you’re up to.

Don’t disappear

If you miss a deadline, have a disagreement, or run into a snag when doing something your mentors asked for, resist the urge to hide and hope they won’t notice.

Your mentors care about you and most would much rather you be honest and upfront about the struggles you’re experiencing—you don’t need to go into detail if that’s not part of your mentoring relationship, but at least let them know the contours.

Sometimes mentees disappear because they’re embarrassed or ashamed at not meeting an expectation, leaving mentors bewildered and not knowing how to help.

If you need to take a break or focus on something else for a spell, that’s perfectly fine, but let your mentors know so they can support you—whether that support is checking in or just letting you do your thing.

Final notes

Both you and your mentors are whole people, with complex lives and paths. Have the confidence to ask for what you need from your mentors (you’re worthy of it!), but also recognize that one mentor can’t be everything to you.

Even if your mentoring relationship is strictly professional (for example, you don’t discuss personal issues at all), assume that like you, your mentor is also dealing with relationship and family stuff, health situations, travel, politics, home repairs, career concerns, and community issues.

Be kind and compassionate to yourself and your mentors to ensure great mentoring relationships over the long term.

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Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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