How to Develop a Strong and Productive Mentor/Mentee Relationship

Two people climbing mountain ridge, one assisting another over the top ridge.

Two people climbing mountain ridge, one assisting another over the top ridge.

A mentor/mentee relationship can be immensely rewarding for both people. But how do you get to know each other, build trust, have productive meetings, and continue to have a beneficial, ongoing connection?

Jennifer and Lydia met through MMANC’s Credentialed Government Leader program, where Jennifer was Lydia’s mentor. Together they created tips for mentors/ mentees to achieve a productive, open relationship.

First, two quick notes on how to find a mentor if you’re not currently involved in a formal program. One, find a coaching program that fits your needs, whether it’s through MMANC’s Credentialed Government Leader program, the ICMA Coaches Gallery, or Women Leading Government. If you aren’t finding a connection with someone, keep trying. Two, reach out to your network and ask for recommendations for a mentor.

  1. Spend time thinking about what you want out of the relationship. Your mentor wants to be helpful to you and your situation. You to decide what you want. Do you want suggestions for how to climb the career ladder? Tips on presenting yourself well? Advice on specific situations, or something else? Lydia wanted a mentor that would be able to offer advice on how to get to the next step, well as suggestions for improving her resume, and how to approach negotiating a higher starting salary.  (The last one worked particularly well!)
  1. Research your mentor’s background. Getting to know mentor’s background and help you understand the strengths he/she brings. It can also prompt questions about the path he/she took and why. You may benefit from finding a mentor who is not like you, or hasn’t traveled the same professional or personal road as you. Luke Skywalker and Yoda’s mentorship was stronger because they were so different.
  1. Send your mentor your resume. Allow your mentor to see your background at a glance, and in advance. The preview will allow the opportunity to provide feedback on how you present on paper. 
  2. Set ground rules. Be clear that confidentiality goes both ways so your mentor is comfortable sharing stories and growing pains. Both people should be clear that what is discussed on the call stays on the call.
  1. Be clear. The conversation will go where the mentee leads it – so lead it. State upfront whether this call is a check-in about progress or a specific question/concern. And be clear about when you want advice. Your mentor may be waiting for that queue to jump in.
  1. Be honest and vulnerable. As a mentee, knowing yourself and your weaknesses is one thing but sharing them with someone else is another. Your mentor can best help you when you are honest about what you need to work on. Think back through performance reviews and feedback you’ve received. As uncomfortable as it is, this is where there’s opportunity for the most growth.
  1. Ask about your mentor’s struggles. Mentors have war stories that taught them many things. If you’ve heard ICMA President Pat Martel’s presentations on resiliency and crucible moments, you know these stories can be ugly but very useful. Sharing these stories lets the mentee know that he/she is not alone and can learn from someone else’s challenges. For the mentor, it is important to make sure the stories fit what the mentee is going through. Mentees also won’t find it helpful if a mentor says they handled everything perfectly and didn’t struggle, so mentors need to be honest with themselves too.
  1. Say thanks. Let the mentor know that you appreciate their time, experience and effort. Send a simple thank you, especially if the mentorship has a formal end. A handwritten thank-you note is a nice way to acknowledge your mentor. It makes you memorable in a world where it’s important to acknowledge the value of the time and effort put into these relationships.
  2. Keep building your dream team. Having different mentors with different perspectives can be helpful in shaping your career and dealing with difficult situations.
  1. Keep in touch. Make sure to keep in touch with mentors throughout the year. It’s worth it to put in the effort to stay connected when you are not in crisis so that you have a reliable team to help you if you encounter one. Putting a reminder on your calendar to touch base with a mentor periodically can ensure you keep in touch.

Your mentor is busy but wants to know how you’re doing. Your success is his/her success. We do not get the chance to catch up as often was we would like, but we are so glad when we do.

Jennifer Phillips is City Manager in Saint Helena, California and Lydia Rossiter is Senior Management Analyst with the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Lydia and Jennifer first developed these tips for the Women Leading Government coaching series.


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