22 Jul 2021 21:09 IST

Nurturing a healthy mentor-mentee relationship

Mentorship is a gift of time and expertise built on mutual respect and trust, with clear rules of engagement

At a corporate function a couple of years ago, one of us met an ex-student. She was ecstatic that the chief guest at the event was someone who she saw as her mentor. After the chief guest finished his speech, she rushed to accost him to show that she knew him well. He was visibly uncomfortable with her gushing and slipped away after a few words. This was a clear case of the mentor and mentee not being aligned on the nature of the relationship.

We have seen different sides of the coin — mentees who were unclear about what the relationship entailed, and mentors who were either uninvolved or who tried taking all decisions on their mentees’ behalf. These relationships often ended with both parties wondering why things didn’t work as expected.

Based on our experience of being mentors, here are some tips we would advise those seeking mentors.

Mentoring vs coaching

Mentorship is an opportunity for the young to be guided by someone senior, preferably someone who’s not their immediate manager. One has to be cautious of the nature of the relationship — mentorship is often used interchangeably with coaching, though it is possible to draw some distinctions.

Coaching sessions are usually structured interventions to help the coachee understand their potential and improve their performance. Mentorship usually follows a less strict cadence and can span different aspects of working life, and often even their personal struggles of the mentee. Mentorship is more relationship-based, where the mentor helps the mentee think through their decisions by providing a sounding board. As a student or a young employee, decision-making, both on work and personal fronts, can seem daunting. Good mentors help gauge the impact of decisions on others and share insights on how they have resolved similar problems themselves.

If the mentor and mentee form a strong relationship, the mentor may also give the mentee a glimpse into their work. This gives a frame of reference for how someone senior navigates difficult decisions.

Identifying your mentorship needs

A good place to begin is to list out areas that you need guidance on now and also would like to explore in a few years. This is a good time to introspect while being rooted and real in what you desire. For instance, if you find you make decisions in haste, you may want to find a mentor who is more reasoned in their approach to decisions. This could help you pause and consider that different situations need different approaches. Hence, if you are able to ascertain what areas of your personality you need to develop, you can approach mentors with more clarity.

Decide what role you’d like your mentor to play in your journey. We suggest that the mentee looks at a mentor as an advisor, not a decision-maker. Without this clarity, mentorship often becomes a crutch instead of helping you grow.

Finding the right mentor

There is no easy answer here. Like getting into a relationship, finding the right mentor could be a matter of luck or just being observant and bold. Senior colleagues at work (either in the same department or another one) are good bets if you are at a workplace. If you’re lucky, your company HR may already have a programme to match mentors. If you’re a student, you could look at an alumnus who’s doing something you’d like to learn about or approach a faculty you can relate to. Industry events too are often a good source to look for mentors.

To improve your chances at finding mentors, be open about what you’re looking for. Let people in your circles know what kind of mentoring you’re looking for. Chances are that someone can put you in touch with prospective mentors. A warm introduction goes a long way in getting a mentor interested in you.

Do some homework on the prospective mentor. Read up on their work and life. See what they post on social media to get a sense of the person they are. Be careful, a flamboyant mentor may not always be the best. You may be better off with someone who can relate to your current conditions and offer targeted advice.

This is also a time to think about how to present yourself well. A mentor has to choose you as much as you choose them. Be clear about what exactly you’re looking for, but feel free to give them a glimpse into your world. Most mentors want to learn from you as much as teach you. After all, one of the gains of mentoring is to view a different environment that the mentee is part of.

Of course, building a relationship with a mentor is also about chemistry and time. You may find the perfect mentor, but they may not have the time at the moment. Or you may realise that their style of mentoring doesn’t suit you. Like any relationship, a mentor-mentee relationship is built on mutual respect and trust. If you feel these elements are lacking in your conversations, the mentor may not be a right fit for you. Since mentoring is not a formal construct, do close the loop with them if you’d like to withdraw.

Mentorship, not friendship

Mentorship is a gift of time and expertise that you get from someone more experienced. But let’s try and understand what motivates mentors to give.

They often admit to having struggled when they started out and may have made mistakes because they did not have a guide. Now that they are more senior, they may want to help youngsters avoid the pain they felt. It gives mentors an opportunity to relate to a different generation and understand changing aspirations and motivations. Many mentors love interacting with enthusiastic youngsters who bring fresh perspectives to issues at hand. They may identify some parts of themselves in the youngster and be keen on connecting back to their younger selves. Whatever be the motive, it’s important to realise that mentorship is not the same as friendship.

We have seen people make two mistakes in dealing with mentors — being uninvolved or being too involved. Let’s take the first one.

A mentor is a well-wisher, but not a friend. While mentors have an interest in your success, they may not have the inclination, time, or energy to follow up on advice they give you. As a mentee, you will gain from the relationship if you respect their time. Try going in with a set of clear asks. If the mentor provides you advice, try it out and let the mentor know the outcome. In closing the loop by sharing the outcome, you help them learn as well. And you’re also signalling that you’re willing to work on yourself based on their advice. That is the basis of any sound relationship.

Safe boundaries

On the other end, mentees often do not appreciate or respect boundaries in the relationship. Mentors are senior and often busy individuals. When you start a relationship with a mentor, let them draw the lines. Do not probe on topics beyond your engagement, unless the mentor is so inclined. Even then, tread carefully. Sense the boundary line.

Mentors may choose to share personal details of their struggles or help you navigate a challenge. But that does not permit you to flaunt the relationship to gain an advantage, or divulge private information to others. Mentors may also be comfortable talking in a private setting, but cautious about engaging publicly to avoid being accused of favouritism. As a mentee, it is important to respect this.

In the case we started with, the young girl who walked up to the chief guest clearly made him uncomfortable as she did not respect unstated boundaries. Would her mentor be comfortable with her basking about her relationship with him in public? Or could she have been more graceful in the way she approached him? Had she picked up signals earlier, she would have made him comfortable. It would have been evident that she knew how to respect the relationship as well.

In closing, mentorship can be a mutually beneficial relationship that helps both parties learn and grow. Seeking out the right mentors and learning from them, can often be the fastest way to excel both personally and professionally. Just be aware of the rules of engagement.


Views expressed are personal.


(Renuka Kamath is Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing, Bhavan's SPJIMR, Mumbai, and Shrinath V is product strategy coach and consultant.)