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5 tips for getting the most from your mentor

Last week I was on a friendtoring call – you know, one of those phone calls you get from a friend who rings to ask your professional opinion (like the term? My friend David Lee came up with it and gifted it to me when he told me to stop mentoring for free and to turn it into a business!).  It started out the usual way: how are you going, what have you been up to.  But within a few minutes she launched into her dilemma.

Turns out my friend, we’ll call her Susan, has engaged a mentor and she’s questioning his advice.  “Is it ok if I choose not to follow his advice?” Susan asks.  Now many of you who’ve heard me speak will know that one of my preferred strategies in a variety of situations is to do nothing.  At all.  At least until you’ve had time to sleep on an idea, preferably several times!  But there are some complicating factors in Susan’s situation which I’m guessing most of us have had to deal with in one form or another.  Or that we’ll deal with in the future, given the uptake in mentoring that’s sweeping through organisations today.

Firstly, Susan is paying her mentor handsomely for his advice.  Personally.  That is, she’s self employed and has invested in a mentor to fast track her business growth.  And at more than a thousand bucks an hour, it’s a serious sunk cost to ignore his advice.

Furthermore, she’s set herself some serious timelines and milestones that will be difficult to achieve off her own bat, without the help of role models, networks and (presumably) her mentor.  Her mentor is an acknowledged industry leader, and someone in whose footsteps she’d like to follow.  So wouldn’t he be the right person to listen to?

Finally, Susan’s mentor is very well connected in her industry and she’s concerned that if she doesn’t follow his advice, he’ll cut her off or at least be less inclined to portray her as a protégé.  Important points, especially when she’s trying to carve out a business for herself and where connections count.

So, taking this all into account, what was my advice?  My 5 tips for making the most of your mentor (of course!), which are:

  1. Choose your mentor wisely.  Ensure their values are aligned to yours, that they understand where you’re coming from and that they know what success will mean to you individually.  Even the most highly acclaimed expert in your field will be unsuitable as a mentor if your values and drivers in life aren’t aligned.

  2. Try before you buy.  If possible, have an initial meeting to test the water first.  Ask for references or recommendations.  Remember you are the buyer and it’s your prerogative to be in the driver’s seat at this stage.
  3. Be clear about your expectations.  Communicate clearly your goals for the mentoring relationship, what commitment you’ll be seeking from your mentor and what has been successful and unsuccessful in previous mentoring relationships you’ve been in.  Are you looking for someone to tell you the what or the how?  Or both.  And will you want the why as well, or will you trust your mentor’s judgement (I know that I’m always one to ask why – and not all mentors appreciate my curiosity!)
  4.  Assess your progress.  Have regular feedback discussions with your mentor about what’s working for you both as well as any frustrations you may be experiencing.  If this seems difficult or uncomfortable, remember this is a business relationship and you’re the buyer: you’re absolutely within your rights to get what you’re paying for.  And if it’s not working, be prepared to terminate the mentoring relationship and seek a more suitable fit.
  5.  Don’t discount what you know about yourself.  Mentors are important and will bring to you a wealth of experience, but that doesn’t mean you should follow them blindly.  Sometimes the result of being elevated to mentor leads to an oversized ego: if your mentor tells you “follow my advice and everything will be easy”, don’t believe them for a second!  Be prepared to challenge their thinking; and consider the advice in your own personal context.  You will know your own capabilities much better than your mentor will: only you will know what you are personally capable of, whether your mentor’s advice is right for you, and whether the approach they have taken will also work for you.  So remember to listen to yourself as much as your mentor.

Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with a number of wonderful mentors, role models and advisors.  I know I couldn’t have achieved what I have without their ongoing support.  As I continue to grow my own mentoring business now, I’m sure they’d approve of these 5 tips – and maybe even see a little of their own advice in there.

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