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Seven Ways to Ensure That Your Mentor/Mentee Relationship Succeeds

July 19, 2010

Back in May, I spoke at Internet Retailer’s Women in E-Commerce Workshop on a panel of incredibly accomplished women in the industry. On that panel were:

Shirley Tan: Director of E-Commerce at
Andrea Gulli: VP of E-Commerce, New York & Co.
Susan Aplin: Founder and CEO,

These women have raised capital (in spite of how much more difficult it is for women to do, historically), they’ve successfully run, and in some cases sold, companies to even bigger companies, and have managed to make names for themselves in a young industry like e-commerce, where most of the top executives are men. From my perspective (the “under 30” perspective, as was my charge to present at this particular event), they give a girl a lot to aspire to and work toward.

It got me thinking about mentorship. The topic came up a lot at this particular workshop: whether it was important, how to find one, how to keep one, how to make the relationship work. People inquired about how to find mentors as well as how to establish good relationships with mentees. If you’re feeling frustrated and unable to find someone solid to guide you through the up’s and down’s of the business world, then it might be time to rethink modern mentorship and what it means to you. Here are 9 tips to help you do that.
1. Mentorship does NOT equal apprenticeship. Long gone are the days where a person was required to teach those in line behind him the minutiae of a specific trade. We have college and internships for that. Any mentor worth his weight in paperclips will help you develop the tools you need to solve problems, not give you all the answers. Don’t rely on your mentor to walk you through difficult situations, or show you, step-by-step, a new technology or platform. The old adage, “Teach a man to fish…” holds true here. For your own good, ask your mentor to give you the basic, need-to-know steps, then fill in the gaps as best you can.

2. Set realistic expectations about the relationship. Your mentor is not one of your girlfriends (or bros, as the case may be). It’s best to keep tales of your drunken escapades through Vegas and your anger towards the mother who won’t stop criticizing your taste in men to yourself. Keep the talk professional. Of course, personal bits will creep in; that’s a pleasant side effect of getting close to someone. That being said, keep it top level. Too much information can be a relationship, and a career, killer.

3. Your mentor may tell you something you don’t want to hear. Listen. So you’re the rising star in your organization and your parents told you you your 4th grade English paper deserved a Pulitzer. Your mentor is not here to sugar coat things for you, they are here to tell you, to your face, what you could be doing better. No one’s perfect, not even you. Instead of getting defensive, take their advice to heart. Evaluate how true the words are (and they may or may not be true), then act.

4. Look for more than one mentor. You might not get everything you need from one person. Identify different people within your company and outside of it who can give you varied perspectives on issues you may have. Your mentor inside of the organization might not be able to see the forest before the trees. In that case, consider looking outward for a more objective opinion.

5. Don’t wait for your mentor to reach out to you to set up time to meet. If you’re upset because your phone isn’t constantly ringing with calls from a mentor eager to sit down to coffee with you once a week, it’s because they don’t have time for that. Those who are good at what they do and worthy of mentoring in the first place are busy. Make it YOUR priority to initiate that contact and follow up to see the meeting or conversation through.

6. Prepare for meetings with your mentor. Just as your time is valuable, your mentor’s time is valuable. Take time to think about what you want to cover during your meeting. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you identify specific items you want to discuss ahead of time.

7. You can find mentors where you least expect it. Not all mentors will be your superiors. I know that I consider my father to be a mentor to me. Consider reaching out to a family member. You might even consider looking to a younger person, someone who is well-versed in new technology, to advise you.

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