There are no shortage of requests for my time from my former students. Some of them want to “bounce ideas,” others want to work toward solutions in their entrepreneurial pursuits, still others are looking for career advice or personal development tips. While I’m happy to oblige in each of these areas, a small subset of them want to broaden the relationship, continue to receive advice to the point of scheduling a year’s worth of meetings, and enter into a mentoring relationship.
My opinion is that a mentee should provide value to the relationship as the process of mentoring should not be a one-way street. As a case in point of how NOT to do this, consider this story. In the spring of last year, I met with a former student who began a “side” business offering entertainment events. He asked me to look over his business plan and marketing e-mails because his initial launch didn’t go as planned, and he lost money in the process. During an hour-long conversation over lunch in early summer, I asked several coaching questions meant to check his understanding & recognition of his customer’s point of view, his competition, etc, and we had a great discussion leading him to draw several new distinctions and deeper understandings. As a result of our meeting, he revised his offering, adjusted his website and enjoyed a successful second attempt this past fall. A few weeks after his successful second attempt, he reached out and asked to schedule a series of meetings to continue our conversations, and brought up the “M” word.
Internally, I appreciated that he would reach back out to me to continue a relationship. At the same time, it occurred to me that I was not invited to his entertainment event, nor was there a note to say what worked and how our conversation helped as a summary. When I considered his request more deeply, I realized it wasn’t about a lack of monetary remuneration (we meet over lunch), but at the core, there may be ways he could add value to our relationship. Given that, here are six relational and technical actions I’ve used over the years when interacting with my Mentors and Mentees.
1) Send an agenda 24 – 48 hrs in advance of the meeting. This action helps you to organize and articulate your thoughts. This tip also gives your Mentor an idea of your oral and written communication skills, and whether or not they should bring anything additional to help make the conversation more robust and valuable. Further, it helps to set time parameters to the conversation by indicating a definite beginning and ending. (NOTE: If you’ll contribute to the conversation by commenting to this post and request an agenda template via email at email@example.com, I’ll forward my favorite template.)
2) Invite your Mentor to share in your successes and “near successes.” In the aforementioned scenario, my potential Mentee could have invited me to his entertainment event, and our future conversations could be richer because of my firsthand experience with his endeavor. Conversely, I’ve had many conversations with one of my academic Mentors during my recently completed doctoral journey. I recall many days when I asked for (and received) the gift of his time and wisdom which helped me earn my terminal degree. I wanted to do something special for him and three other similar Mentors, and I thought a card, a photo from the event or even lunch would not be worthy of their contribution to my success. My solution was to invite him to a private pre and post graduation event to honor him and my family as being an important part of my journey, and he had a seat of honor at the graduation ceremony. He is also mentioned in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation as a permanent memorial of sharing in my success.
3) Ask your Mentor how you can add value to him or her. Besides being impressed that you’ve asked, this question signals a deeper level of maturity and understanding, and a true relationship. Whether it’s a short article you’ve summarized and attached in an email, the link to a short video from an expert in an area of interest, or the “heads up” on a Groupon at their favorite merchant, these actions serve to differentiate you. They also let your (potential) Mentor know that although you may need to stretch to provide value to him or her, you are willing to do just that. You may need to “think outside the box” for more value-adding ideas, but isn’t that something you currently do?
4) Provide a summary of what you’ve learned in each conversation. Verbalizing your learnings are good. Documenting them in writing, then sharing this with your Mentor is better in my opinion. This drives your learning deeper and removes all doubt about whether or not your sessions have been time well spent.
5) Send a hand-written thank you note. To say “Thank you for sharing your time with me, I am continuing to get better under your tutelage. Please let me know if you think there’s anything I should be aware of before we meet again, and I’ll do the same for you.”
6) Recognize your Mentor’s birthday or new job role. Call, email or visit to say “Happy Birthday” or “Congratulations”. Take him or her to lunch and celebrate their special day. This shows you genuinely care about them as a person & not just as a silo of “free” advice.
While you aren’t limited to the number of Mentors you can potentially have, I believe the depth of your learning is in direct proportion to the amount of value you add to these relationships! Finally, remember the positive effects of these actions accrue as you practice them. Go forth and add value!