How to be The Best Mentee?
August 12, 2020 10:57 AM   Subscribe

One of my goals for 2020 has been to get professional mentors. Now that I have really ace individuals taking me on as a mentee, I feel I am partially squandering the opportunity, especially with the mentors who are multiple rungs ahead of me experience-wise. I need help figuring out how to be a better mentee! More below.

I am a mid-career woman of color working in a mostly (straight, white) male-dominated profession. Since the whole point of having a mentor is to learn from more experienced professionals how to prepare myself for more senior roles, naturally some of my mentors are white men. Despite being on an executive track professionally, due to my own imposter syndrome, I feel like I’m not building the best mentoring relationships I can and not making the most of my access to my mentors due to feelings of inferiority. It’s as if I don’t know how or am scared to reach out my mentors for guidance when my work struggles seem too pathetic or alien, for example talking about toxicity and sexism, but also other more mundane topics that are not at the level or scale of issues they deal with.

To be clear, my mentors are great and are not intimidating or aggressive in any individual way. Trust me that I have experience with toxic folks, and this is a very different experience. I naturally want to feel like I am bringing value to a conversation, so I feel ashamed to ask for help or to talk about my work struggles, and sometimes even avoid reaching out to my mentors, which is incredibly self-defeating in a mentoring relationship. It's as if I need to act more entitled!? Which sounds ridiculous, but there we have it.

My questions:
1. If you’ve had a very positive mentoring experience, what did you do to facilitate your mentor being The Best Mentor for you?
2. What did you ask of your mentor that really paid off for you?
3. How did you learn to ask for the help, advice, guidance, assistance that you really needed instead of feeling ashamed and avoidant about it?
4. General advice for how to be a great mentee?

Bonus points for addressing imposter-syndrome and figuring out how to leverage being outside the good ol' boy crowd while advancing in one's career.
posted by Goblin Barbarian to Human Relations (4 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I was part of a structured 6 month mentoring programme (as the mentee) so YMMV, but the biggest thing for me was that we had scheduled monthly meetings, and I left each one knowing what I was aiming to do before the next. It gave me focus, and motivated me to do the work between meetings because I knew I'd have to show up and have something to talk about; and it gave me a concrete way to feel like I was making the most out of the great opportunity I'd been given.

In fact, I'm pretty sure I went into our first meeting basically saying that his biggest role for me was probably going to be in keeping me accountable like that, and so it proved. This was a writing mentorship rather than workplace, so actually sitting down to write was the thing I needed motivation with, but I wonder if similar structure would be helpful for you? Arrange meetings at regular intervals, agree some long term goals, and at each meeting agree what you're going to have done before the next meeting to move closer to those goals. Add in some time at each meeting for asking for advice on matters arising (not necessarily from your work towards those goals, maybe just matters arising in your career).

It would also save you from feeling like you're taking up time, imposing on them etc. If they agree ahead of time to a specific schedule of meetings, and that's the time you take from them, you're good - they know what they're getting into, and they've assented to it ahead of time.

I guess, more obviously, there's also something about making sure your mentors are people who can actually help you with the challenges you face, not just Important People in the industry. If the biggest challenge for you right now is being a WOC in a white, male industry, finding a WOC mentor who can help you with that sounds crucial (though possibly easier said than done if there are not many of them!) She could probably even help you with the question of "How do I get successfully mentored by all these white dudes when I don't feel on the same wavelength?"
posted by penguin pie at 11:25 AM on August 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a mentee, here is what you can reasonably ask a potential mentor to do for you, with the highest chance of positive results:

1) Request 30 minutes a month, a phone call or Zoom call. No more.
2) Ask for those 30 minutes to be spent discussing one or two questions you have for them, instead of an open-ended phone call. Send the questions in advance. I recommend sending the questions the first week of the month, and having the call scheduled for the third week of the month. That way they can consider your questions and be ready to talk about them during your call.
3) During the call, discuss those questions. See where the conversion takes you. Be a listener more than a speaker.

I want to urge you to try very hard to find mentors that are not white men. You can find mentors who are outside your specific field but a ring or two higher on the ladder in a similar field who are women of color, and they are likely to offer you very beneficial mentorship. White dudes just cannot understand a lot of your barriers, even if you try to explain them, and you'll waste their time and yours in the explanation.
posted by juniperesque at 11:29 AM on August 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I really like the book Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships by Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy. It provides a lot of detailed tips on how to seek out mentors in different areas where you might need mentoring, figuring out what exactly you want out of a mentoring relationship, how to maintain those relationships, etc. There are worksheets that I found to be really helpful in figuring out what I want out a mentoring relationship and from who.
They talk extensively about identity and difference and how that emerges within mentoring relationships but I wish they had a much more intersectional approach.
posted by wasabifooting at 12:59 PM on August 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Re. Imposter Syndrome interfering with reaching out to your mentor:

As others have said, some things a white successful old dude just cannot help with ... so you'll have to ask/find someone else (could be a white successful old dudette, depending on the Q).

But for 'normal' questions CBT (Cognitive behavioral therapy) could help you out. Basically it's like this: for some reason your brain is wired to say, in your inner voice: "can't/won't/shouldn't reach out". And your task is to rewire thos incorrect pathways.

SO AS SOON AS THAT HAPPENS you ACTIVELY think back: "why not?".

Is it a problem you're having? Something you think the mentor has experience with/can help with? If the answer is "yes", then you have reason to reach out. That simple.

Do that enough and soon enough "can't/won't/shouldn't" will automatically be followed by "why not?".
Do it longer and you will have re-wired your brain and "can't/won't/shouldn't" will almost automatically be drowned out by "why not?".
Finally you'll only ask yourself "why not?" as your neurons/pathways will have re-wired themselves.

And that's all I got :)
posted by MacD at 4:14 PM on August 13, 2020

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