Leadership and career

Tips for Building (or Severing) a Mentoring Relationship

By August 15, 2016 No Comments

Q:  I’ve been a mentee for about three months. Both my mentor and I were excited about our new roles and ready to roll when we began. Now I’m not sure it’s going to work out. It took a long time and lots of work for me to find my “Yoda,” and I don’t want to give up on our agreement yet.  Where do I go from here?

A: Before you decide to bail, try a new approach for bringing renewed life to your flagging relationship. It may be that your mutual choice to work together was on target, but your process is missing the mark. Here are some tips for turning things around or, if necessary, diplomatically go your own way:

  • While there’s no particular protocol on when and where to meet, it’s important to structure your time together. Schedule regular sessions every two weeks or once a month to get off to a good start. Otherwise, you may never get your relationship off the ground! If politics run rampant in your organization, it’s probably wiser to schedule a breakfast or lunch off-site, rather than meet in your mentor’s office.
  • Plan an agenda for each meeting and give it to yo mentor in advance. Have a specific issue ready to discuss. Perhaps you might include some specific questions to help your mentor prepare for your time together, especially if this is a new role for him. You are using the valuable time of two busy people. Make it count.
  • If your discussions aren’t going well, talk openly about how to improve your communication. Also try “active” listening, where you repeat what your mentor has said to be sure you understand what he meant. Use “I” statements to take responsibility for how you are interpreting or feeling about the words and tone of the conversation. Enlist a friend’s or therapist’s help to get a second opinion about what’s going on, if necessary.
  • Don’t let miscommunication build resentment and distance or result in explosive frustration for either of you. “Gunny-sacking” is a sure way to end a relationship and burn an important bridge.
  • If you and your mentor work on it, your friendship will settle into a comfortable informality. You may choose to become more flexible in your meeting schedule and need for an agenda and prior preparation. Just be careful. It’s easy to take each other for granted and neglect your time together. To keep that from happening, always assume that it’s your responsibility to keep in touch.

Over time, you may eventually be confronted with two ticklish situations:

  1. Your expertise equals or surpasses your mentor’s, or
  2. Your mentor slips from favor in the organization’s power structure due to his own mismanagement or because the new leadership views him as a vestige of the old regime. (The latter reason is prevalent in mergers and acquisitions.)

Both of these scenarios require a diplomatic assessment of your relationship’s value versus the potential harm it might cause your career. If you’ve chosen a savvy, self-confident mentor, she will enjoy watching your progress, possibly feel a sense of relief when you achieve a peer level, and look forward to a relationship of equals. Then you can become informal coaches for each other.

It’s the controlling mentor who can cause problems. She wants to maintain the status quo because it’s a source of power for her fragile ego. Short of recommending co-dependency therapy for her, you’ll probably have to put some space between the two of you to save your friendship.

The fallen mentor situation is particularly hard to handle, because often she has slipped from grace by no fault of her own. In fact, in a merger scenario, you may actually prefer to continue your friendship with her rather than hunting for a more politically expedient substitute. However, a good mentor will probably recognize her demise from the “A” list and suggest you discreetly distance yourself from her, at least for the time being.

On the other hand, a mentor who has been accused of sexual harassment, gross negligence or some other major transgression is no longer mentor material. Rather than going down with her ship, you’ll need to cultivate other people resources who have impeccable reputations and move on.

A good insurance policy for avoiding this situation is nurturing friendships with a few noncompeting managers or community leaders simultaneously. Then, if a relationship with one should sour, you still have the others for ongoing support. Few mentors mind sharing a mentee unless they feel you are playing both ends against the middle.

As your career moves to higher levels, honor your mentors by playing forward their tradition of helping younger colleagues. If you’ve benefited from their friendship and learned from their example, you will be an ideal candidate to take their place with a new generation.


Taunee Besson headshotTaunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.

“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.

Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.

In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997. 
In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

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