Decoding Mentorship: How to Make the Most of Your Relationship

In the first of our two-part series on mentorship inspired by panels we hosted recently in San Francisco and Portland, we discussed why and how to find a mentor. In this installment, we explore how to build a mentor relationship that matters.


Decoding mentorship – maybe it’s not that complicated after all. Entrepreneur and author Seth Godin challenges us to consider mentoring in its simplest form: “What you get from a mentor is a human-being that you respect, who cares about you, and keeps you on track. You don’t need a famous, busy person, you just need someone who cares about you.”

For many people, the first person who played that role was a parent. Speaking at a panel on mentorship we hosted recently in our Portland office, Ann Smith, president and founder of A.wordsmith, told the group about the guiding role her father played, and the other panelists quickly chimed in with similar stories of mothers and fathers who provided a quick word of advice or detailed guidance at a pivotal point. With Ann’s story, the seemingly distant and complex idea of mentorship — both personal and professional — became a much more familiar, relatable one.

The women on the panel, which included Heidi Munson, Jess Brown, Mara Kershaw, and Michelle Simone in addition to Smith, spoke from the heart about their experiences and offered advice in response to attendees’ questions.

Among our key learnings were three important steps to building and maintaining a successful mentor relationship:

ALIGN ON THE STRUCTURE OF THE RELATIONSHIP: 

While not complicated, mentorship requires give and take, and this intentional open and brave engagement leads to the most rewarding results, according to our panelists.  Will the relationship last for six months and then renew if both parties agree? Is it a casual gathering or a more formal engagement? Is the information shared private or open to be shared with others? How often will meetings occur?

As leadership author and speaker Mary Abbajay wrote in Forbes, “the truth is that effective mentoring takes effort, and creating successful mentoring relationships requires specific skills, sensibilities, and structure from both the mentor and the mentee. Success happens when both parties take responsibility for making it work.”

Agree on objectives: 

Munson, who works in sales at Oracle, finds passion in being a mentor to others, but the desire to be a mentor or mentee isn’t enough.

“You not only need to be clear about your objectives or boundaries for the mentorship relationship but also be prepared to do some work, to put in the time and effort, and to be thoughtful about your personal goals,” she told attendees at the Propeller event.

Is the relationship over when a plan is in place? When a goal has been met? When a job is obtained? Is it okay for the mentor to provide advice – and the mentee to ask for advice – regarding guidance in personal areas (i.e. whether moving to another location will open more doors, how to select a different life path)?

Be open to the mentor’s point of view: 

Why embark on this adventure? It’s simple, according to the women who spoke on our panel: You gain access to a new point of view.

That new point of view is something that is becoming even more important as workplace demographics change, Arlene Kaukus, director for career services at the University of Buffalo, told the New York Times.

Our rapidly changing world raises “the importance of being able to see things from different people’s points of view based on their life experience, their culture, their ethnicity, their gender,” she said. 

The nature of the mentor relationship is as unique as the mentors and mentees involved. In the end, decoding mentorship might be as simple as finding someone who cares enough to challenge you to grow.