How to Nurture a Successful Mentor and Protégé Relationship

Some attributes are more important than others.

This question originally appeared on QuoraWhat are some of the biggest red flags in an interviewee? Answer by Ian McAllister.

I have several mentors at Amazon, and mentor a number of colleagues. I also mentor a number of startup founders. The most successful of those relationships share these attributes:

Mutually understood goals. Prior to entering into a relationship, the mentee, or the person matchmaking the mentor/mentee should be able to communicate the goals of the relationship. Goals might be to help the mentee get promoted, secure funding, resolve performance issues, improve communication skills, etc. It’s helpful if the mentor also has goals (e.g. gaining deeper understanding in a new space, getting first in line to invest), but the mentee’s goals should take precedence.

Mentee-driven. The mentee should be the person driving the schedule and the discussion topics. Each meeting, the mentee should bring a list of topics for discussion. For each, they should brief their mentor on the topic, present the problem/challenge/opportunity, outline their current thinking about strategy or next steps, and solicit their mentor’s advice. 

Bandwidth-appropriate. Mentors shouldn’t commit to a new mentoring relationship if they don’t have the time to meet on the agreed to schedule. As a mentee, you’d be better off knowing you need to find a new mentor for a given area than depending on your current mentor for advice, but having your meetings frequently cancelled or rescheduled. Mentees need to make sure they aren’t too greedy for their mentor’s time. It is the mentee’s responsibility to keep up the relationship and to get a sense for what the appropriate frequency and venue is.

A focus on approaches, not tactics. A mentee will get more value out of a mentoring relationship if they pull advice from their mentor on how to think about a given topic (an approach), rather than focusing only on tactical ideas related to the topic. Getting “what”, “why” and “now vs. later” advice from a mentor is more valuable than “how” advice. Work with them to build mental models and frameworks that will pay dividends throughout your career. The most productive discussions may start from a narrow topic, but usually turn a little more abstract rather than staying narrow.

A focus on listening. As a mentee, it is tempting to want to promote yourself and your accomplishments to more senior and influential mentors. It is also tempting to want to top a mentor’s anecdote or idea with your own. Don’t. As a mentee, you’re better served by milking examples, ideas and learnings out of your mentor, and then leveraging your mentor to help apply them to your space.

Transparency. If a mentor chooses not to give a mentee a desired referral or has discomfort with other aspects of the relationship, then they need to be honest with their mentee and present clear feedback (e.g. “You need to flesh out your go-to-market plan better before I introduce you to Mike.”, “Next time we meet, try to prepare some discussion topics ahead of time.”). It may take a few meetings to build the trust necessary to give this type of candid feedback, but try to get there quickly.

Dissolved appropriately. A series of unproductive meetings may be a signal that a mentoring relationship has run its course. Maybe the mentor isn’t a good fit for the mentee, or maybe the needs of the mentee have shifted since the relationship was established. A mentee shouldn’t be afraid to explicitly dial down the frequency of meetings or stop them entirely. I had a former mentor who was smart and experienced, but I wasn’t learning much from him and our meetings turned into chats. I ended the formal relationship by simply letting him know that I enjoyed our talks, but was going to make better use of our time by reaching out less frequently when a topic came up that was especially relevant. 

Note: My answer is for mentor/mentee relationships that are explicitly established and portions may be less relevant for those relationships that form organically.