Why your mentor relationship isn’t what you expected

One best friend

Don’t expect your mentor to be your best friend

There are huge misconceptions around the mentor relationship. Mainly coming from the mentee.  Many women anticipate a warm and empathetic mentor relationship which endures across decades. There is no doubt that some do.  The media is full of historic mentoring relationships which have morphed into deep and meaningful connections. But your mentor isn’t your BFF.  Although it’s helpful to like your mentor, for an effective mentor mentee relationship, it’s not even necessary. It’s important that you respect her, she treats you with integrity and supports you to meet your goals.  But the warm fuzzy relationship which we read about is not necessarily the basis of a successful mentoring relationship.Paragraph

A mentor relationship story

In my early career in a PR agency I was a junior in the weekly senior management meetings. My role was to take notes and serve coffee. This was 35 years ago. I had to submit the notes for approval to a member of the board, an abrasive woman I will call Anastasia.  She was an ex-journalist who had left school at 16 and worked her way up the hard way from regional to national press and then to PR. She was a tough as old boots and didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all.  She had the lined skin of a ferocious smoker,  piercing eyes and was totally terrifying.
49360000 - young businesswoman with mentor in office

Your mentor is there to push you not just hold your hand

Every week my notes came back covered from top to bottom with red editing symbols. I began to feel humiliated and then angry.  Finally, after much prevaricating, I plucked up courage to ask if I could talk to her about it.  I went into the meeting in an almost accusatory way.

It was a 10 minute conversation, but essentially the feedback was that I made careless mistakes in spelling names, I used 10 words when 4 would do,  my vocabulary was too complex and I didn’t specify the action points clearly. I was also relaxed about getting them out so contributed to slowing down the business.  In other words my record of the meeting was poor.

Read: 7 reasons why mentoring programmes fail

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Back in those days, mentoring programmes didn’t exist like they do today.  I was with that agency 5 years and whenever I needed some home truths and “give it to me straight feedback” I went to Anastasia. I also knew if she praised me, that it wasn’t a job well done, it was excellent.  At that time you didn’t get a group hug for participating.
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I never went for a drink with Anastasia. We didn’t chit chat in the office, but I knew that I could always brave the fug of her office and seek her out for advice. She would listen to my concerns with only mildly disguised impatience. I know that she sponsored me for a promotion. When she retired I missed her.
So when you look for a mentor relationship, chemistry is important, but should only be part of your decision making process. It’s not just about personality and fit, but also about skill set and experience. Sometimes staying in our comfort zone with people like ourselves doesn’t help us grow as much as being mentored by people who are not like us, or even polar opposites. With like personalities we can slip into confirmation bias. It’s always good to have a mix.
Mentoring is a great opportunity - just make sure you pick the right mentor

Mentoring is a great opportunity – just make sure you pick the right mentor

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How to ensure a good mentor relationship

 Make sure you ask some basic compatibility questions before considering a mentor relationship:
• Tell me about your career experience
• How do you think you might be able to support me?
• What was the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?
• What was your biggest disappointment and how did you handle it?
• What (if anything) would you have done differently in your career?
• Who was your mentor?
• How did you handle…..
So try and have a range of mentors with different personalities during your career. A mentor doesn’t have to be your BFF to be effective.
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Pru Merrick is a Creative Director in a London PR agency.

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