How to have an Effective Mentoring Relationship

Sheila Murphy
June 12, 2020

Many times, people have told me about mentoring relationships gone wrong, and because of that, they did not think mentoring was beneficial. For example, Sam said to me in his company-matched program that his mentor never reached out to him. When I explained that the mentee owns the relationship, his eyes widened and said no one ever told him. Sam is not alone; countless others I know have not taken steps to have a beneficial mentoring relationship. So how to have a good relationship? Keep on reading.

What’s the goal?

The first step in trying to establish any mentoring relationship is to ask yourself why  you want a mentor and what are you trying to get out of a mentoring relationship? The answer cannot be “because everyone told me that a mentoring relationship is essential to my success.” You have to look deep in yourself (and perhaps ask others) for what you could gain from one or several mentoring relationships. Some mentees have told me that they don’t know why they need one. If you cannot articulate what you need help with, other than being delusional (because everyone needs help with something), it is hard to help you. Friends of mine who are rainmakers and EVPs at companies all have mentors because they are committed to growth.


So the question is where do you need to develop?

Are you looking to learn more about a business or an industry?  

Do you want to enhance your technical skills or need help navigating an organization?  

Are you trying to develop soft skills, such as strengthening and flexing communication skills or managerial skills?

Write down all of the things you want to get out of this relationship. Doing this planning will help you identify potential mentors —as well as topics for discussions.

Right person

Once you know the areas you want to focus on, determine whom you think can help you develop those skills. Who are the people in your network that are excellent at what you want to learn, have the skills you want to enhance and are good teachers? Someone can be the best appellate arguer in the world, but if he or she is selfish and obnoxious, that is not the right mentor. Now you need to be realistic. Sheryl Sandberg would probably be great at helping me on presentation skills and being more engaged with my team. However, chances are she may not have room on her plate for me. So in looking at your list of potential mentors, think about their availability and how much time the mentoring will take (is this a long-term mentoring relationship or spot mentoring?).

You may be looking at your list of possible mentors and realize some are inside your organization and some are outside. In a perfect world, you would have mentors both inside and outside your firm. The internal mentor may be able to help you with your skills in the context of corporate culture, as well as aid you in navigating politics. The external mentor may give you advice without the lens of politics and may be more open to discussing possibilities outside of the firm and exposure to outside thought leadership. You may also be more comfortable discussing specific people and personalities with someone outside of the firm.

What if there is no one you know who has all of the things that you are looking for in a mentor? First, you may need multiple mentors, so you may need to break the topics down. If that does not work, talk to your network and, if you are comfortable, your manager. My network has helped me find spot mentors on different topics, such as business issues and industry views. My best and most effective manager helped me find a perfect mentor (who turned into a dear friend) when I discussed with her what I was looking to develop. I also asked that same manager what she thought I should improve. She helped me identify the areas to spend my time on.

Once you have determined the right people to be mentors, reach out to them and ask. Be very specific as to what you are looking for — is it a spot mentoring, or is it long term? What are the topics you would like to discuss with them? You may think that John would be great to mentor you on a subject, but he might not be.

Types of mentoring relationships

There are different types of mentoring relationships, and depending on the circumstances, one may be more appropriate than the others. Understand what you are looking for, and be very specific when asking.

The most wonderful ones are organic relationships in which you and another person hit it off, and he or she takes the time to talk to you about your areas of focus, or you learn and soak it in by observing the person. In many of these organic relationships, no one ever utters the word mentor, and that is OK. A duck is a duck — even if you never call it that.  

Many companies, departments and organizations run mentoring programs in which you are paired up with someone. Having the pairing taken care of makes it easy for you, and if the person in charge of the pairing knows the strengths of both of you well, you may end up with a great mentor you had not thought of asking to take on this role. Being paired in this manner may expand your network if your mentor is someone you did not know. The downside of these relationships is that they may not feel as natural or safe as one that grows organically. So sometimes you don’t get the benefits you were seeking. Despite the possible downsides, I say join. I know many junior people who were able to establish a relationship with senior executives through these programs, and that possibility, along with an expanded network, makes it worth it.

Spot mentoring is when you are not looking for a long-term relationship but are just looking for someone to provide some mentoring on a topic. When junior attorneys express interest to me in learning more about going to work on the business side or how business people set strategy, I reach out to my network and have them meet with someone a few times on the topic. I also have met with outside counsel considering a move inside to discuss the things that may be surprising if he or she makes a move. These are short-term advice sessions focused on a specific topic or two. The benefit of being focused on a select question is that you are asking for a short time commitment, so you may be more likely to get a yes, and again, you have expanded your network or deepened a relationship.

The relationship

As I stated earlier, the mentee owns the relationship. Don’t expect the mentor to schedule appointments and topics. With that said, you should discuss the ground rules for mentoring. How often and how long will you meet? By the way, it is OK to have a relationship that is sporadic depending on issues. I have some mentoring relationships that started regularly but, over the years, have evolved into as-needed mentoring. However, what you don’t want to do is say that you want to meet every month, and then two months into it, you start booking weekly sessions.

You also want to discuss confidentiality, and that is a two-way street. The mentor can help you understand the politics of an organization and may not want you sharing the information in the cafeteria or anywhere else. The mentor may have other ground rules, so be prepared.

It is alsoOK for the relationships to be telephonic, but you can’t multitask — you need to focus. For each meeting, you should come prepared to explain the session’s topics or situations. It is best to be as specific as possible and to have attempted problem-solving, thinking about why it was or was not effective. In later sessions, you should spend some time evaluating the advice or whether the game plan you devised is working, and if not, why not.

Be open to the mentor asking your advice and counsel too. He or she may want to understand how a situation is perceived or how a message that the mentor is giving to his or her team would be perceived.

Ending the relationship

Not all mentoring relationships turn out to be good matches. I have had some that were not ideal, and I learned a ton. By the way, don’t assume that just because you are very different people that you cannot benefit. My perspectives were changed for the better by people who had a different approach or perspective.Understanding other views also made me a better manager.


A few times, I did not gel or have productive relationships with mentees. The person did not come prepared or take any steps to develop, and a few times, the person did not follow up and schedule meetings, and I was not doing it. A mentor is there to guide you, but the mentee must do the work, and if you don’t put in the effort, don’t expect anything to change. In these situations, it is best if the person is up front and explains that the relationship is not working and thanks the other person for his or her time. So the bottom line is you should be honest and grateful —even if it was not ideal, the person did not have to give you his or her time.

Mentoring relationships can genuinely enhance your career as long as you invest your time and do it the right way, and that includes taking to heart the advice and taking action.




© 2020 Focus Forward Consulting LLC


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