Oh, the mentor/mentee relationship. Heralded as a necessity, a privilege, and as a boon, the relationship is put on a pedestal for up and coming entrepreneurs and their more seasoned counterparts. We admire mentee and mentor relationships as a way to foster meaningful connections across demographics and life stages, as well as their influence in the business world.
Nearly every ultra-successful entrepreneur in the world has at least one mentor they speak highly of. Both Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg have shared that the late Apple founder Steve Jobs was their mentor, current Google CEO Sundar Pichai is mentored by Google founder Larry Page, and Warren Buffett mentored Bill Gates.
These famous mentor relationships are aspirational, and often highlight some traits that we find in other healthy mentor and mentee relationships.
Four Traits of Healthy Mentor Relationships
1. Open and honest communication
A mentor can be many things for an aspiring or new entrepreneur. They can act as a sounding board for pitches, ideas, or brainstorming; they can act as a source of connections and references that propel new endeavors into the marketplace; they can share their own successes and failures as an invaluable source of advice. While these relationships can take on many forms, open and honest lines of communication are one of the hallmarks.
Mentors and mentees need to feel comfortable, secure, and like their voices are being heard when they share with each other. This kind of communication allows the other person to gain an insider perspective on the current state of the union, which in turn allows the other to offer their expertise or advice. The gut reaction to hide or gloss over one’s entrepreneurial failures or missteps will only hurt the relationship; when we feel comfortable enough with a mentor to share where we are struggling, we allow them to help.
2. Mutual benefits
The healthy mentor and mentee relationship is beneficial for both parties. Think of it this way, if there was nothing that you got out of being a mentor or a mentee, why would you do it? The benefits associated with being a mentor or a mentee and sustaining that relationship will look different for both parties and may even change over time. They do not need to be limited to financial gain, such as stock or a percentage of ownership, nor do they need to be based on personal obligation, such as familial ties.
When you are seeking out a mentor or a mentee, there should be some discussion about what each party anticipates to gain from this relationship. This may sound very transactional, but remember that healthy relationships are good for both parties, and when one side feels as though they are not benefitting from the relationship, they are far more likely to disengage or leave the relationship unsatisfied.
3. Built on meaningful connections
The foundation for a strong mentor and mentee relationship is based on shared connections. Many people seek out mentors or mentees who operate within the same occupational field, have similar entrepreneurial interests, or have shared backgrounds, such as alma maters, fraternal, or club membership or interests, such as volunteer engagements. Whatever the initial connection may be, a common interest or background is a great way to build into a mentor relationship.
The connection that mentors and mentees share may be based on these shared foundations, but will ultimately grow as the relationship deepens and matures over time. There will likely be a personal element to your mentor relationship, even if it originally began as a professional connection. Navigating this relationship requires appropriate boundaries and mutual respect for the other person.
4. Ongoing and sustained
Having a mentor simply isn’t enough. Successful mentor relationships require time and energy, just like other types of relationships, both personal and professional, and cannot be limited to one off engagements. While there are a number of factors that may ultimately influence the frequency with which you’re able to meet with a mentor, a good benchmark is the quarter. Whether it’s an in person meal or drink, or a short phone conversation or email exchange, aim to connect with your mentor once a quarter. This will allow you to keep the other person abreast of any major life changes, big news, and any pertinent follow-ups.
When do you need to break off a mentor/mentee relationship?
Despite good intentions, not all mentor and mentee relationships will ultimately work out. There are times when the relationship is no longer in the best interest of either party, whether professionally or personally, and this must be taken into consideration. If the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial or is increasingly one sided, take it upon yourself to consider whether this relationship should be continued.
There are, of course, times in the relationship that will be more beneficially for one party than the other, such as during career transitions where the mentor may be providing references or using their connections to aid their mentee in their job search. This is a short-term condition where the relationship may be more one-sided than it was previously. When the relationship is not mutually beneficially for an extended period of time, it needs to be evaluated and an open conversation between the mentor and mentee about whether it should be continued should be considered.
If the mentor relationship ever crosses the line into impropriety or unprofessionalism, it should be ended. There are far too many instances where power dynamics are manipulated and this type of relationship becomes inappropriate. The power dynamic of a mentor and mentee relationship is inherently tipped in the favor of the mentor, who is often older and in a position of greater occupational, and likely socioeconomic, power. It is wise to keep the power dynamics of your mentor relationship in mind and to be aware that, unfortunately, not all relationships are healthy and can be continued.