I Have a Mentor - Now What Do I Do: 5 Ways to Grow the Mentor Partnership
Congratulations! You have forged a successful, mutually-beneficial alliance with another person who is your mentor. Now let’s get the ball rolling and keep this partnership growing, while ensuring you both continue to help each other as needed.
The best mentor-protégé relationship unfolds organically with ideas, offers of assistance and value ebbing and flowing. You should never feel like you are doing something in the relationship that is forced or required. With my protégés, I never approach an action, such as providing insight about a company, giving a recommendation, or offering an introduction, as something I am supposed to do. The relationships I have with my mentors are successful because both my mentors and I adopt an attitude of genuinely seeing how we can strengthen the alliance and the other party as we go about our day. It becomes almost second nature for us to invest in helping each other and the more we contribute, the more value we gain ourselves.
Since you now have a mentor, you may be wondering what you should do at this point to move forward, so here are 5 tips to cultivate a victorious alliance.
- Clarify their communications preferences.
While millennials consider texting to be totally acceptable and professional, older generations might not feel the same way. Will your mentor view a text message you send with a smiley face at 2am as appropriate? This is the kind of key information you need to know in order to grow your relationship with your mentor. Show your mentor how much you truly respect them by communicating with them using the methods they prefer. You don’t have to be a mind-reader or an internet stalker to discover this information, take the direct approach and simply ask them. Inquire if texting is ok or do they prefer email? Is it fine if you call them or would they rather you send a letter first to announce your intentions? By clarifying their preferred mode of communications early in the relationship, you will set a positive stage for all interactions in the future. Your mentor will take note and appreciate that you took the time to learn and adopt their favored methods and there will be much less miscommunications in the future.
- Mark your calendar when you will reach out or follow up with this person.
The success of a mentor-protégé relationship is dependent upon keeping in touch with your mentor. You are the driver of the union, so you want to keep them apprised of what you are working on, your progress in your research and professional endeavors, and your goals. The reason for this is simple - you want them to know your commitment to your field, understand your professional objectives, see your skillset, and keep you in mind for opportunities that may come up. But you don’t want to hound them and you shouldn’t text them every day. As the partnership begins, you might find yourself speaking with them on a frequently basis. This could be because they might be helping you with a specific goal or urgent project, like getting a new job or applying for a fellowship. But the relationship may move into what I call a waiting phase. During this time, you may not have an explicit reason to contact your mentor. Yet, you do want to stay in touch. I suggest putting a few notes in your calendar to remind yourself to send a quick email, just so they know what you are doing and that you are thinking of them. A good rule of thumb is to send them a quick note once a quarter. Holiday greetings count! In each email, you may want to:
- Offer them new information about yourself (e.g. a new project you are involved in, recent publications or awards)
- Recognize their accomplishments (e.g. recent awards, recognitions, publications)
- Offer something that can assist them right now, like a link to an article or an introduction to someone you know
- Give them an action item, such as a quick question about their work. Be careful not to ask something that requires them to write a dissertation. Questions should require no more than 30 seconds of brainpower and typing time to respond. Any more and you run the risk of annoyance or even being ignored. A quick question about their work shows that you are interested in what they are doing and invested in the relationship.
- Keep your eyes open for opportunities for their success.
Your partnership with your mentor is a two-way street. But early-career professionals new to a mentor-protégé alliance, may be asking “What could I possibly offer my mentor?” One of the most important benefits you can offer is a dedication to helping them succeed. This means keeping your eyes open for opportunities that will enable their professional triumph. Not many protégés think to advise their mentors about professional advancement opportunities, so when you do it showcases your can-do attitude in a positive manner. Some examples of opportunities you could provide are:
- Being a reference or nominating your mentor for a fellowship or an award
- Inviting them to speak on at a panel/workshop that you are familiar with or know the organizer
- Facilitating a colloquium at your institution and inviting them to present and network
- Suggesting a grant for which they could apply
- Offering a chance to be interviewed in a publication or blog
- Introductions to another mentor or associate you have
The value you provide the mentor will be mirrored by the value they provide you. At the very minimum, you are offering ideas that can spur them to take their research into new directions. Inspiration can come from anyone at any time, successful professionals who serve as mentors know this - it’s part of the reason they want to mentor you!
- Get ready for the long haul.
A great mentor-protégé partnership provides value over long stretches of time. I met one of my mentors when I was a student and they have been mentoring me for millennia. Another one of my mentors has been guiding me for over 16 years, whereas another I’ve known for only 6 years. Each relationship is unique and spans different amounts of time, distances, and disciplines. I make it a point to update my mentors on what I am working on a few times a year, and when I know I will be in their city, I let them know so we can meet. I am invested in these alliances for a lifetime, because they can last that long. I am aware that I may not receive formal or tangible benefits immediately, however, I recognize that if I nurture the relationships correctly and genuinely, they will produce value for both parties.
- Become a mentor yourself and pay it forward.
As a protégé, you can observe how good mentors behave, interact, support, and communicate with their mentees. Watch how they do it so you can gain skills in mentoring yourself. And as you hone these abilities, look for potential protégés- people who are just starting out in their careers or even peers. Pay the value you have gained from your mentors and use it to mentor others. It will make you a better protégé and a more competent professional. And, of course, it is the right thing to do!
Alaina G. Levine is an award-winning entrepreneur, STEM career consultant, professional speaker and science writer. Her book, Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), was named a Top 5 Book of 2015 by Physics Today.