Yesterday I realized I spend a good deal of time thinking about how to be a better mentor, and how to help others be better mentors. But I don’t invest much time thinking about how to help people become better mentees. So I’m going to give it a stab. For conceptual clarity my thoughts here apply to any sort of relationship in which you’re being coached, advised, mentored or taught by an individual outside a classroom on an ongoing basis. What a mouthful. I’ll use the word “mentor” to stand for any of those types of relationships.

To begin, we must recognize that this is similar to asking, “How can I become a better spouse?” or “How can I become a better friend?” It’s individualized. It depends on the unique needs of each person in the relationship. All this is MUCH easier if the two of you are a good natural fit in the first place. When the fit is good, you’ll have to make fewer changes to become a better mentee for that person.

First principle: ask your mentor what he or she wants from you in this relationship. This might seem more formal than necessary, but it’ll serve you both. Too often, in all sorts of relationships, expectations are not clarified, which leads to problems. If your mentor has important expectations that you can’t or don’t want to fulfill, best to find out as soon as possible. I have a close friend who’s a high-powered attorney, dedicated to her career. When she married, she didn’t know that her husband expected her to cook dinner for him every night, and to otherwise perform as would a non-working spouse. Tragically, it was a deal breaker for both of them.

Next, you actually have to take your mentor’s advice. As my wife says, “Why buy a dog and bark yourself?” Sometimes the advice won’t intuitively seem like a good idea. “Really? You want me to do that?” When you have misgivings discuss them. But do it anyway. Do it despite your doubts. A good mentor will occasionally push you out of your comfort zone. If you reject your mentor’s advice too frequently, you should probably look for another mentor.

Next, don’t act on advice from every well-meaning person. Suppose you hire a wellness coach. After learning about your goals and challenges, this coach will almost certainly recommend a program for you to follow. As you do this, you’ll be bombarded — by well-meaning friends — with diverging and conflicting advice about the elements of your program. If you act on all this advice, you won’t be following a program whose elements have either internal consistency or harmony. You won’t make progress.

I’ve noticed in my career that a particular leader’s decisions and actions create a certain internal harmony (harmony is different from consistency). As a consequence, there are behaviors or tactics that will work effectively for leader A but not for leader B. Acting on advice from too many different sources can easily destroy that harmony, preventing you from progressing.

This is not to discourage you from seeking different opinions, just as you might for a medical problem. My advice is to discuss with your mentor differing advice you’re receiving before you act. That way your decisions and actions will maintain both internal harmony and consistency.

Finally, express some appreciation. Appreciation from a mentee is among the most meaningful forms of recognition a mentor receives.

Thank for reading. I’m sure there’s much more to be said on this topic. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

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