Thinking about a mentor for your small business or new venture? Ideas on how be a good mentee

Two of my recent posts offered items to consider when thinking about a mentor for your venture and when looking for the right one. Today I am turning the tables to ask: What does it take to be a good mentee? These points apply whether the mentee is an individual or a team.

Get off to a good start. Whether your kickoff is a formal first meeting or a series of informal chats that gradually evolve into a mentor-mentee relationship, share your initial hopes, goals, and expectations for your mentee-ship. If you are uncertain about them, explain that too. Ask the mentor about his/her hopes, goals, and expectations for the mentorship as well. Go for clarity rather than agreement. If you and your mentor see everything identically at the outset, he/she may not have the fresh perspective you want. If you haven’t already done so, share background information about your business within the rules you have agreed upon for sharing information.

Develop long-term priorities collaboratively. Build upon your expressed hopes, goals, and expectations to agree upon the issues you and your mentor will focus on over time. Whether you use a highly structured agenda for regular meetings or something less formal, over time you will want to work in areas to which your mentor can add value and that are significant to your business. Excellent mentors often spot issues, problems or opportunities before their mentees. Working from your two different perspectives, collaboratively setting mentor-mentee priorities can focus the relationship and increase the value to your company.

Be honest and authentic when discussing the business. Don’t try to dazzle your mentor by dismissing problems, minimizing difficulties, or overstating your organization’s capabilities. If everything is perfect and you know it all, you don’t need a mentor! Take your mentor’s questions and concerns seriously. You don’t need to bare your soul or the company’s books, but you do need to commit to realistic and substantive conversations, again within the rules you have agreed upon for sharing information.

Prepare for meetings in advance. Whether you meet in person, by phone or over the Web, preparation is key. What is your objective for the meeting? What topics do you want or need to discuss? Why are these topics important? Are you going to ask your mentor to do something such as introduce you to a prospect or potential investor? Do you want detailed feedback on your new project? Is there background information that you want your mentor to read before the discussion? Is an update on a past discussion or an overview of the last quarter’s performance in order? Once you and your mentor agree upon the routine, make sure you give him/her adequate time to prepare for each session.

Keep your mind and ears wide open. As your mentor is speaking, if you find yourself thinking of all the reasons his/her advice is half-baked or completely unbaked, step back and force yourself to listen without judging. Ask clarifying questions to understand the basis for your mentor’s ideas and how they might be beneficial. If you consistently think little of your mentor’s views and/or find it impossible to be receptive to outside ideas, perhaps you have the wrong mentor or being a mentee is not for you.

Take ownership of any decisions and actions that follow from mentor-mentee discussions. Your mentor is not the decision maker or implementer, you are. Being open to new ideas and ways of working doesn’t mean you must take your mentor’s guidance as gospel. Ultimately you are responsible for the growth and profitability of your enterprise. Excellent mentors understand this and will not be offended if your actions are contrary to their input so long as you consider it.

Give and take feedback. Don’t shy away from giving constructive criticism such as, “It would help me to hear your guidance if you framed it in terms of XYZ.” Of course it is important that you be open to receiving constructive criticism as well.

Be aware of group dynamics, potential conflicts and individual priorities when working with more than one mentee and/or mentor. It can be very valuable to have more than one mentor and extremely useful to have members of the leadership team working together in the mentee role. Bringing everyone together can stimulate very valuable discussion but meet with one mentor at a time if you don’t know them well, see potential for competitive or interpersonal conflicts, or suspect that one will overshadow or dominate others.

Show your appreciation. Say thank you for your mentor’s thoughtful input, especially when it helps you to make your business more valuable. If you don’t feel appreciative of your mentor’s input, why is he/she your mentor?

While many mentors and mentees assume that a mentor will take the lead in the relationship, my experience is that realizing value depends upon proactive efforts, receptivity, and good practices on the part of the mentee.


Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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