How to Build a Successful Mentor Relationship

Here are several tips on building a successful mentoring relationship.

Matthew Reeves

CEO of Together

Published on 

November 5, 2021

Updated on 

Time to Read

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Finding someone at work to support and encourage you—and challenge you—is one of the best ways to develop your skills and reach your career goals. Most often, this type of relationship is a mentoring one. The benefits of having a mentor are widely documented:

  • 90% of people with a workplace mentor say it’s valuable.
  • 89% of those who have been mentored will also go on to mentor others.
  • 25% of employees who enrolled in a mentoring program had a salary grade change, compared to only 5% of workers who did not participate.
  • Mentees were 5 times more likely to be promoted.
  • 67% of businesses reported an increase in productivity due to mentoring.

These benefits and more are why over 70% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs. 

But to reap the benefits of mentorship for yourself or your organization it all depends on the mentor-mentee relationship. If that doesn’t work nothing else will.

What is a mentoring relationship?

A mentoring relationship is a connection (usually) between a more senior employee or leader and a junior employee who may be younger, or less experienced. Although the senior-junior mentoring relationship is what usually comes to mind when someone says “mentorship” it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case all the time. 

The mentor-mentee relationship can take several different forms. For example,

  • Peer mentorship is when colleagues coach and guide one another.
  • Reverse mentorship is when more junior employees mentor leaders in order to give them a new perspective or help them tap into a younger generation's experience. 
  • Group mentorship is when a mentor gives guidance and advice to several mentees at one time. If you’re starting a mentoring program it can be hard to get a one-to-one ratio of mentors to mentees. That’s why group mentorship is effective. We have an extensive guide on starting a group mentoring program.
  • Mentoring Circles include many mentees and mentors. There is usually a facilitator in the mentoring circle that is in charge of the administrative duties for the group and all mentees usually have something in common. Mentoring Circles are common for new hires or managers.
  • Flash mentoring is when employees are given short sessions with many mentors. This is great for encouraging connections between new employees and leaders.

The point is the relationship between a mentor and mentee can look different depending on the context and goals. Regardless of its form, there are many reasons it’s important to have a mentor, be a mentor, and have one in your workplace.

Quickly watch this snippet from a talk by Simon Sinek where he shares how great mentoring relationships are formed:

The importance of mentoring relationships

Mentorships are unique relationships that are most often developed in a professional atmosphere. They are designed to help the mentee learn new skills, network and become more successful in their careers. They also provide the mentee with an opportunity to gain knowledge from a more experienced co-worker. 

It’s clear there are many benefits to mentoring, so that’s why so many workplaces start formal programs. These programs can be general employee development, but many programs have specific goals behind them, such as:

Yet, for an organization to get all these benefits, the mentorship needs to be based on a strong connection or relationship. A mentoring relationship takes time to develop but can be one of the most important connections anyone can experience in their career.

An example of a successful mentor-mentee relationship

Lori Hunt is the Director of Multicultural Services and Outreach at Spokane Community College. She gave a TEDx talk in 2013 where she shared about her mentor's impact on her education and life path. In her talk, Lori recounts that, as a first-generation college student, she struggled to adjust. She thought she wanted to be in the sciences but after struggling through her classes and having to take the same course twice and not passing, she decided to change paths. She thought a business degree would be better, but struggled to pass there as well. 

She describes this period of her life as a crossroads. Does she quit school altogether, or try a third time to find an educational path that was right for her?

Unaware at the time, Lori shared that it was her work-study supervisor and her husband that helped her decide what to do. Through a thoughtful conversation filled with empathy, they helped Lori understand what she wanted to do with her life and encouraged her to switch degrees and pursue one in education. 

When reflecting on the experience, Lori shared that,

“They gave me the tools to make the right decision. All along I had possessed these tools, but I just didn’t know how to use them.”

When she went back to school she majored in Sociology. She learned her true passion and went through a master's and then a doctorate. She saw that one night of mentorship at her work-study supervisor's dining room table as pivotal in her career path.

Since Dr. Hunt's TedTalk was in 2013 we reconnected with her to see if she'd like to provide and update on what's changed in her life since. When responding, Dr. Hunt shares advice for others currently looking for a mentor:

"Since my Tedx Talk, I have completed my Doctorate in Educational Leadership and after multiple promotions am currently serving as the Acting Provost at Community Colleges of Spokane. Over the last 10 years within this system, I have gone from being a Director, to an Associate Dean, Dean and now Acting Provost. Yes, it was hard work and many hours doing the work I love but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the impact mentors have had in this journey. They have been sounding boards helping me recognize areas of growth, helped me get through moments of frustration and have provided advice on negotiations and on my path to a college presidency. I enjoy sending emails to mentors to share in my achievements as a way of saying thank you and reminding them of the impact on my life. Starting a mentoring relationship may seem like a lot of work but if you take the time to be selective in seeking the right mentor, it will be worth the investment. Seek a mentor that aligns with your values, can provide advice on the career path you are on and where you are headed and that will encourage yet challenge you to stretch beyond your current thinking."

How to build a successful mentor relationship as a mentee

If you’re a mentee and you’ve either just found a mentor or are actively looking for one, congratulations! The experience will take time, reflection, and maybe some critical self-awareness. But it will all be worth it. There are certain characteristics of mentees that help the relationship develop, however.

To make sure your relationship is successful here are some ways that you can make sure you build an authentic connection with your mentor:

Set SMART goals

Be respectful of your mentor’s time and make the most of it. Mentees should have a clearly defined plan for what they would like to gain from the mentorship. By setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-sensitive you are most likely to be successful both in your career and in your mentorship. It also demonstrates your commitment. 

Demonstrate your interest

Your mentor is investing time into you and your career. You can show your appreciation by listening to their advice and asking thoughtful questions. Be an active participant in the mentoring relationship, not a passive partner.

Connect often

Frequent communication is key to cultivating a strong connection with your mentor. Keep in touch with each other and check in regularly. This can be done via emails, apps, messages or phone calls. Keep in mind that most mentorships work best if there is a consistent schedule. Set a regular time to meet, which helps both of you work the meeting to your busy routines.

Be appreciative

Mentorships don’t last forever. Remember to thank your mentor when it is time for your mentoring relationship to end. You can do this by sending thank you cards or emails with a heartfelt message. Whatever way you show your thanks, letting your mentor know how much you value them will leave a lasting impression.

Similarly, even before the relationship has culminated make sure to recognize how they’ve helped you. It may seem obvious to you but it can be very fulfilling for the mentor to hear you explain how their advice helped you in a particular area. 

Give back

Even if you don’t have the experience and extensive skill set that your mentor has, there are still things you may be able to teach them. Find out what you can offer and give back to your mentor by helping them learn something new through the mentoring experience. Doing this demonstrates that you care about them and lays the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship. 

Likewise, paying it forward by helping someone less experienced than yourself is a great way to give back. Help the next generation find their place and career path by sharing your stories and experiences with them. Mentees usually make great mentors.

Ask for feedback

Mentee’s grow by listening to the advice and guidance of their mentors. Make sure to ask them for their feedback. You can ask your mentor to listen to a presentation you have upcoming, outline how you’re thinking about a strategy for a project or quarter, or share with them a challenge you’re currently facing and how you think you should solve it. These are great opportunities to get actionable feedback from your mentor. 

Come prepared

Nothing can be more frustrating for a mentor who dedicates time to help you grow than to show up to a meeting and feel like they have to direct the conversation. The mentor is there to help you, but you need to direct the conversation.

Come to each meeting prepared with questions, problems, or opportunities you want to discuss with them. Having a structure to the conversation is important. Without it, the conversations can struggle to go deep and instead remain high level. This hinders growth and progress.

On the other hand, if you have an agenda for the meeting around a specific topic like goal setting or problem-solving the discussion will be much more productive. 

Apply what you learn

If you appreciate the advice that your mentor gives you, apply what you’ve learned from them. It can be a great opportunity to follow up with them, letting them know how you applied their advice and what the outcome was. Keeping in mind how you can apply what you learn from your mentor is a great way to show your mentor that you take their advice seriously. Likewise, it holds you accountable.

6 Tips for mentors who want to build a strong mentorship

Mentees need to drive the relationship as they’re the primary beneficiaries. But that doesn’t mean mentors don’t have to put in some effort to be a good mentor. Here are some mentoring tips that will help you build a strong mentoring relationship. 

Agree on expectations

Aligning on what you both expect to get out of the mentoring relationship is important. Does the mentee want to learn from your experiences? If so, then sharing how you got to the position you’re currently in and the challenges you’ve overcome may be a good route to take with the relationship. Alternatively, if the mentee has obstacles they’re actively trying to overcome they may be less interested in hearing about your past experiences. They likely want actionable advice from you. If you agree on expectations ahead of time it can make your role much easier as you know what the mentee wants.

Be committed

One of the most important elements for a successful mentorship is a commitment on part of both the mentor and mentee.  Mentoring takes time and energy from both participants. Each should be dedicated to playing their part and helping to build a strong relationship. 

Give straight talk

A mentor plays many roles. They’re an encourager, an advocate, a coach, a listening ear, a guide, and much more. However, one of the most important parts of being a mentor is giving your mentee honest feedback, or straight talk. 

Here is an excerpt from our webinar on How to Be a Great Mentor / Mentee where we shared the following on how mentees should think about straight talk:

Mentors aren't there to sugarcoat things for you. Yes—their role is to be honest, helpful, provide support and positive feedback—but they also need to tell you when you're doing things wrong or when you've made a mistake...You need to remember that the reason they may sound a little blunt is because there's an issue and they think that you can learn from it. Your mentor may think you can better yourself from the experience. So don't take it as an insult or criticism. Keep in mind that it's always for your benefit and that it's going to help you improve and they’re not there to make you feel small.

It’s not always comfortable to be called out, but many of us can look back at tough feedback and see its benefit. Mentors need to keep this in mind to build a mentor-mentee relationship that helps them grow.

Share stories and struggles

Mentors are at their most effective when they share lessons from their own experiences. By sharing your story with all its ups and downs you can take a step towards being vulnerable with your mentee.

If you take the first step in doing so your mentee will likely follow. Although the mentee is responsible for driving the relationship, it goes a long way to let them know that you aren’t perfect and you’ve faced many of the challenges they may be going through.

Don’t tell your mentee what to do but listen and ask them what they think they should do

Your mentee most likely isn’t stupid. They likely know the solution to some of the obstacles they are facing. It may be a limiting mindset they can shake, or an aversion to change in our rapidly changing world. Instead of telling them what they already know—that their mindset is limiting them, or they don’t like change—consider listening to them without telling them what to do.

Whenever a mentee shares a struggle that they’re going through your default response should be empathy as a mentor. Instead of telling them what to do just listen and ask them what they think their next steps should be. Getting them to say back what they think they should do will be more empowering for them.

Connect your mentee with other people in your network

As a mentor, you likely have a greater network than your mentee. To help them continue to grow and find more opportunities, consider connecting them with people in your network. It can lessen the burden on you to “know everything” and advance the mentee’s career. 

Sponsorship is very common to mentorship. A sponsor is a mentor who opens up opportunities for their mentee. Sponsorship can include talking to your mentee about job opportunities, nominating them for boards or projects, and advocating for their advancement within the company to senior leaders or decision-makers within the company.  

How will your mentoring success story be written?

Creating a strong relationship takes time and commitment from both the mentor and mentee. While there are some ways that an organization can assist in cultivating a strong mentor-mentee connection, such as making the right mentor-mentee match, it is up to the participants to develop a good rapport. 

How will your mentoring relationship develop? Keeping these tips in mind will be helpful as you meet with your mentor or mentee, but if you forget everything else just remember to see your partner as someone to learn from. Keeping that in mind will surely help you approach each conversation with an open mind. 

What’s next?

If you’re a mentor, check out our blog on the characteristics all great mentors have in common

If you’re a mentee, get more tips by checking our mentee guide.

And finally, if you’re curious about starting a mentorship program in your organization we’ve outlined everything you need to know—from registration to reporting—in our guide on starting a mentoring program.

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