Q: I’ve had a professional mentor for about three months. Both my mentor and I were really excited about working together when we began, but now I’m not sure it’s going to work out. It took a lot of work to find my “Yoda,” and I really don’t want to bail on my first professional mentor so soon, unless I have to. Where do I go from here?
A: Before you give up on this professional mentor, it might help to try a new approach to your flagging relationship. It may be that the decision to work together was a good one, but your process is wrong. Here are some tips to help repair a professional mentoring relationship or, if necessary, diplomatically walk away:
- While there’s no particular protocol on when and where to meet, it’s important to structure your time together. Schedule regular sessions every two weeks or once a month to get off to a good start. Otherwise, you may never get your professional mentoring relationship off the ground! If this mentor is in your company and you’re worried about what your co-workers will think, schedule a breakfast or lunch off site, rather than meeting in your mentor's office.
- Plan an agenda for each meeting and give it to your mentor in advance. Have a specific issue ready to discuss. Perhaps you might include some specific questions to help your professional mentor prepare. You are using your mentor’s time; make it count.
- If your meetings don’t go well, talk openly about how to improve things. Also try “active” listening, where you repeat what your mentor has said to be sure that you understand. Use “I” statements to take responsibility for how you interpret the conversation. Enlist a friend to get a second opinion about what’s going on, if necessary.
- Don’t let miscommunication build resentment and distance or result in explosive frustration for either of you. Engaging in a standoff is a surefire way to end the professional mentoring relationship and burn an important bridge.
- If you and your professional mentor work on it, your friendship will settle into a comfortable informality. You may choose to become more flexible in your meeting schedule and need for an agenda and prior preparation. Just be careful. It’s easy to get lazy and stop meeting regularly. To prevent that, always assume that it’s your responsibility to keep in touch.
However, even when a professional mentoring relationship goes well, over time you might still face a couple of serious problems:
- Your professional knowledge begins to equal or surpasses that of your mentor
- Your mentor falls out of favor at their company for performance of political reasons
Both of these situations mean that you have to weigh the value of your mentoring relationship versus the potential harm it could cause your career. This "fallen mentor" situation is particularly hard to handle, because people at companies can often become targets through no fault of their own. If your company is bought out or merges, for example, you may still want to continue the mentoring relationship rather than hunting for a more politically expedient substitute. However, a good mentor will probably recognize when they can no longer be helpful and suggest you discreetly distance yourself, at least for the time being.
On the other hand, a mentor who has been accused of sexual harassment, gross negligence, or so other major transgression is no longer mentor material. Rather than going down with them, you'll need to cultivate other mentors who have better reputations and move on.
A good insurance policy for avoiding this situation is establishing friendships with a few noncompeting managers simultaneously. Then, if a professional mentor relationship with one of them goes bad, you still have others to fall back on. Few professional mentors mind sharing a mentee, unless you start playing them against each other.
As your career moves to higher levels, honor your professional mentors by paying forward their tradition of helping younger colleagues. If you've benefitted from their advice and learned from their example, you will be an ideal candidate to take their place with a new generation.