The Mentor-Mentee Relationship: Everything You Need to Know and 6 Best Practices

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
July 15, 2024 at 7:50PM UTC

Mentorship — whether you're giving or receiving — is an incredibly valuable experience. Not only do you develop relationships that help advance your career, but it can be a lifelong learning opportunity. 

The thing is, it isn’t always clear how exactly to establish and maintain these types of relationships. 

Read on to learn what you can expect as a mentor or mentee and get some tips for maintaining a strong mentor-mentee dynamic.

What is a mentee?

The mentee in a mentor-mentee relationship is the person who’s receiving guidance. 

Generally, this means the mentee will be more junior than the mentor in some way. This could be in age, seniority or years of experience (which, while usually correlated with seniority, isn’t always the case). 

Mentor vs. Mentee

Knowing what a mentee is, it’s pretty easy to figure out what a mentor is. The mentor in a mentor-mentee relationship is the person who’s giving guidance. Generally, this person is more senior than the mentee in some way. This could be in age, seniority, or years of experience (again, not necessarily always correlated with seniority).

To help illustrate this point, consider the origin of the term “mentor.” 

In Homer’s "The Odyssey," when the hero, Odysseus, is called off to war, he leaves his kingdom and young son, Telemachus, to the care of Mentor, a wise and trusted counselor whom he trusts to look after the kingdom and teach his son.

Pop culture is strewn with great mentor-mentee relationships. Think, for example, of Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter. Dumbledore (the mentor) guided Harry (the mentee) through countless difficult situations, and helped him grow into a strong enough wizard to beat Voldemort. Although Dumbledore could, perhaps, have been more transparent with Harry about why he was teaching him certain skills (knowing, for example, that Occlumency was supposed to shield Harry against Voldemort luring him to the Department of Mysteries would’ve probably saved Sirius), it can’t be denied that Dumbledore imparted his knowledge and wisdom to Harry.

Famous mentor-mentee relationships are also everywhere in business and media, often to both parties’ benefit. In Facebook’s early days, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg frequently met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs to get insights on growing and marketing Facebook. The two men remained close until the end of Jobs’ life, learning from each other and shaping each others’ digital ventures.

What should a mentee expect from a mentor?

The single most important thing a mentee should expect from a mentor is honesty. A good mentor is able to give honest, unvarnished advice and feedback to their mentee. 

Sometimes, that can be uncomfortable, especially if the mentor has to give feedback that isn’t entirely positive. However, in a lot of ways, those constructive feedback conversations are some of the most valuable talks that can happen between a mentor and mentee; thus, it’s important for a mentor to be willing to start those conversations.

Other qualities that a mentee should look for in a mentor are: willingness to level with the mentee, openness and a sincere effort to find time to meet with the mentee on a regular basis. Additionally, a mentee should seek a mentor whose trajectory — be it personal or professional, or possibly even both — they hope to emulate. 

What should a mentor expect from a mentee?

First and foremost, a mentor should expect a mentee to sincerely want to learn from them. A mentor-mentee relationship is, at its core, a learning opportunity for the mentee. Therefore, a mentor should expect that their mentee wants to learn as much as possible from them. Ideally, this means the mentee will have some ideas for what they want to learn from the mentor, as well as some sense of how they can learn from their mentor’s experiences. 

In addition to a willingness to learn, a mentor should expect a mentee to be open to feedback (both positive and negative), proactive about staying in touch and genuinely appreciative of their mentor’s time and effort. Since mentees have more to gain than mentors in most mentor-mentee relationships, the onus is on the mentee to maintain the relationship.

6 tips for building and maintaining mentor-mentee relationships

1. Do your homework.

As a mentee seeking a mentor, do your research. Look up a potential mentor's LinkedIn, social media and other career-related online presence (for example, their website or publications) to see how long they've been doing what they're currently in, and what kinds of previous experiences they've had. Knowing this information can help you gauge if someone has relevant experiences that can help them guide you as a mentor.

2. Keep the connection warm. 

Establish a regular cadence for the relationship. A mentor and mentee don't have to meet often — once a quarter or so is usually good enough. However, establishing a regular rhythm for mentor-mentee conversations, either in person or virtually, helps ensure regular communication. For the mentee, this means being proactive about sending emails and following up as appropriate, as well as demonstrating genuine interest in regular communication. For the mentor, this means responding to your emails and making time to talk to your mentee on a regular basis.

3. Contribute to the relationship.

Share information of mutual interest. Odds are, you'll both occasionally stumble upon information that's interesting to the other person (after all, you wouldn't be mentor-mentee if you didn't have shared personal and/or professional interests). When this happens, a quick note with that information is often going to be appreciated by the other party. For mentees, this is a great way to give back to your mentor.

4. Make a plan.

Establish clear goals for the relationship. These don't have to be explicit, but especially from the mentee's side, it's useful to have a sense of what you want to get out of the mentor-mentee relationship, so there are clear asks from your interactions with your mentor.

5. Connect as people. 

Get to know each other as individuals. Don't forget that you're both people, too! With that in mind, don't be afraid to get a little personal every once in a while and get to know each other as people with unique interests outside of work and families that you love. Knowing little details about each other will only help enhance your mentor-mentee relationship. 

6. Be real.

Be honest with each other. For a mentee, this means being honest if you don't understand something your mentor is trying to teach you, and offering dissenting opinions when the two of you differ in your views. For mentors, this means striking the right balance between being honest and tactful in your feedback to your mentee.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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