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Questions to Ask Yourself Before Agreeing to Be a Mentor

Mentoring someone can feel like a drag, but done right, it can also help you grow along with your mentee

Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

AA good mentor can be wonderful. And research suggests they can be a life-changer: Having an adviser, sounding board, and cheerleader can lead to improved performance, more advancement, and a more favorable self-image. Over time, mentorship can help the mentee cultivate a positive outlook in work and life, which has been linked to better health, less stress, and a higher salary.

For the person on the other side of the relationship, though, mentoring can be — well, kind of a drag. A recent Saturday Night Live sketch hilariously nailed the misery of it with a fireside horror story: An unsuspecting ad agency man was roped into a coffee with, he darkly recalls, “a 22-year-old recent college grad” — pause for dramatic effect — “and aspiring filmmaker.”

Not every mentoring relationship involves inane movie ideas and endless texts to “pick your brain.” But your time, in and out of the office, is valuable. It’s fair to be skeptical about donating it to someone you don’t know well. That’s especially true if the person who’s asking for mentorship isn’t on the same career trajectory or is too demanding or is someone you just can’t seem to click with.

But done right, a mentoring relationship can benefit the mentor, too. Research shows that people who identify as mentors report more personal satisfaction and organizational recognition, faster promotion rates, and stronger perceptions of career success and purpose than those lacking mentorship experience.

Agreeing to take on a mentee shouldn’t be a snap decision. A bad match can drain your time and energy with little payoff for anyone involved. But if you ask yourself the right questions, you can get a clearer understanding of what you’ll be putting into this relationship, what your challenges will be, and what you want to help your mentee achieve. Here’s where to start:

What do you think it means to be a mentor?

As a first step, broadly define your terms, and make sure both parties have the same expectations. On the most basic level, mentorship is “a relationship, typically within the same organization, that provides both the career and socio-emotional support needed to facilitate someone’s career,” says Roni Reiter-Palmon, director of the industrial/organizational graduate program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

While some mentoring relationships occur within the context of company-organized programs, Reiter-Palmon says most mentorship happens organically: Either you develop a relationship naturally over time, or someone approaches to ask if you’ll be a mentor. Even a workplace mentoring relationship usually isn’t strictly business. Yes, a healthy relationship should include boundaries — for instance, you may not be equipped to deal with a mentee’s mental-health struggles — but professional growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Jeanette Takamura, a professor of gerontology and social policy at New York University, has mentored young adults for more than 40 years. She sees mentoring as a blend of personal and career development. Rather than merely helping mentees reach specific milestones, she aims to help them figure out who they want to be.

“Mentorship is a holistic kind of commitment to an individual — you can’t just help someone with their career,” she says. “To be successful in their job roles, they will likely need to deal with certain issues of personality and character.”

Do you have the time and experience to be an effective mentor?

Take a clear-eyed look at the way your life is currently set up. Do you have room in your schedule to meet with someone regularly? Will a mentorship interfere with time you hoped to devote to your work, family, or personal life? If you’re hesitant or it’s simply not a good time, be honest. “Mentoring can be involved, so if you’re not ready to give the time and energy, you need to be upfront about it,” says Reiter-Palmon.

Next, take stock of your personal and professional background. “Before deciding whether or not to mentor someone, always check your own experience, including technical skills, soft skills, and personal development, against a potential mentee’s,” suggests Siddhartha Gupta, CEO of the talent assessment firm Mercer Mettl. If your fields or background are too different, you probably won’t have much to offer them. Or if there’s too much distance in career trajectory between you two, you may not know enough about how work is done or advancement happens at their level to be truly helpful.

Do you even like this person?

You should also consider whether this is someone you’d be okay spending time with. Do you want to invest your experience and knowledge in this individual? Do your communication styles mesh? Are your styles and interests similar?

“The reality is, either you have an affinity with someone or you don’t,” Takamura says. “Either way, just be absolutely candid about the parameters of your relationship.”

How long are you signing up to do this for?

Bethany Goldszer, senior director of programs and development for Urban Upbound, a New York-based workforce development agency, recommends defining the duration of the mentorship: short term or long term.

“An ongoing relationship may seem beneficial, but often, a few meetings will accomplish what you want,” she says. “Being a mentor doesn’t always require extensive, one-on-one, and ongoing assistance.”

If you agree to mentor, make sure you’re clear on your mentee’s goal, which will help you both determine how to structure the relationship. For example, if they want to get promoted to a role like yours one day, you can set up times for them to shadow you. If your mentee’s goal is to develop public speaking skills, make plans to attend their presentations or watch them rehearse and offer some feedback.

What are your boundaries?

Are there topics of conversation you’d prefer to steer clear of? Do you want to confine your coaching to planned meetings, or are you comfortable meeting on an as-needed basis or replying to an email or text on the fly? Reiter-Palmon recommends directly communicating what you can and can’t do: “If you phrase it as ‘I want to make sure you get what you need, and I’m not overburdened,’ people will be open to it.”

If you’d rather not bring emotional or personal issues into the relationship, it’s best to be open about your capacity on the front end. “I’d simply say, ‘There are areas in which I probably shouldn’t be the person you’re talking with, and perhaps some counseling would be appropriate,” says Takamura.

How good are you at listening?

When someone is asking you for guidance, it can be hard to know when to listen and when to speak up. Takamura recommends listening first then steering mentees in a general direction to encourage independent thinking.

“If you actively listen and the person seems unable to formulate their own direction, you can say: ‘I can certainly share my thoughts, but you need to formulate what your plan will be for yourself,’” she says. “In the mentoring relationship, it’s so important the mentee has ownership of their approach.”

It’s also important that any advice you do give is tailored to the person on the receiving end. You’re not doing much good by tossing off nuggets of wisdom and hoping they land. Instead, pay attention to your mentee’s strengths, growth areas, and personal background, all of which should shape how you communicate with them. “The mentoring process entails getting a good idea of who someone is,” Takamura says.

Can you think long-term?

Goldszer advises taking a “teach a man to fish” approach by helping mentees develop routines for achieving success on their own.

“I always focus on implementing systems instead of achieving goals, so whatever a mentee is trying to achieve becomes a habit,” she says. “If a person wants to get a raise, then we focus on developing a system to get a raise. If I coached mentees on asking the boss for a raise, without helping them create a system that positions them for a raise, then the request would likely be declined.”

In addition to establishing routines, you should take time to fill your mentee’s toolbox with practical resources like books, podcasts, courses, and even other potential mentors that could empower them down the road. Your counsel and coaching will likely play a formative role in your mentee’s career, but your role, should you choose to accept it, is to equip them with the tools they need to create momentum that outlasts your relationship.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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