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What are the challenges in a mentor-mentee relationship?

Updated: Sep 14, 2019

Last year some time after attending a Women in Mining event intended to connect mentees with mentors, I wrote a blog about how surprised I was at the lack of follow up from prospective mentees after the event. The blog was titled "Everyone needs a mentor - here are 5 reasons why".

I knew at the time that the mentee-mentor relationship is filled with complexity. But what really opened my eyes, was an e-mail exchange with a young woman, Eva Masemola, who took the time to comment on my blog.

A few exchanges later, we agreed to co-blog on the topic - and here in a question and answer format, is our discussion on the complexities of the mentor-mentee relationship.


Briony: Eva, you initially responded to my mentorship blog with a comment that the mentor-mentee relationship is not straight forward and that the rules are fuzzy. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?

Eva: I think mentorship is a social skill. The asking is easy, it’s building the relationship that’s tricky. I think an unsaid rule is that both parties have to be on the same wavelength. The relationship may have its foundation in building a career but doesn’t necessarily operate only on that level.

It has to be between two people who “click” and are invested. I don’t think you need to be buddies with your mentor but there certainly has to be some level of comfort in the interactions despite different backgrounds, style of communication, etc.

For me the complexities come from the awkwardness of the initial stages of building a relationship and trusting that the other person is equally as invested. It also comes from knowing that I need some guidance but I am not sure what questions to ask, how often to get in touch, what are the parameters of the conversation, will I always have to ask or will the mentor know to offer unsolicited advice?

Briony: In my experience of being mentored and mentoring others, these are issues that we have often discussed in the course of setting up a mentoring relationship. It's a bit like a dance backwards and forwards with a new dance partner, slowly learning each others dance style and over time developing a way of dancing without standing on each others toes.

"In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care". Maya Angelou

I get that mentoring is complex - but I am still struggling with the concept of why lots of women would approach me to mentor them, and then not follow up on those conversations at all? Is this a cultural issue? An age and lack of experience issue? A lack of intentionality and purpose issue? Or an issues of lack of clarity and vision?

Eva: I don’t think culture and diversity are the main issue. Intentionality, purpose and clarity on where I want to go, feelings of intimidation and not knowing how to proceed are a problem. I found that when mentoring turned into a business proposition, ie the need for reciprocity, the importance of the relationship and need for personalities to click, is missed. No one wants to work with someone they find annoying, no matter how brilliant they are.

“Get hold of me and let’s talk". Sounds great until you sit on the other side of the computer trying to type an email to connect. As a mentee you have to be willing to feel uncomfortable and be ready for rejection despite the “open” invitation. It’s a little bit like dating I think, your crush might have given you their number but when it comes time to use that number, it’s nerve wrecking.

A mentor, as the one with the upper-hand, needs to be aware that they set the tone of the relationship which will ultimately determine how long it lasts. It really should not come down to someone asking you to be their mentor but rather recognising something in the person and wanting to assist them elevate to the next level. If mentorship depends on the mentee asking, then progress on mentorship (for girls in particular) has a long way to go.

"If knowledge is power, curiosity is the muscle" Danielle LaPorte

Briony: When I wrote my initial blog commented on the responsibility of the mentee to reciprocate the mentors investment by being of value to them. You responded to that by saying that if that was the case, you wouldn't want to waste a mentors time. What are you assuming about mentors, and about reciprocity that makes you feel like you might waste a mentors time?

Eva: It puts quite a bit of pressure on the mentee since what the mentor gains is subject to perception and dependent on what they value. If a mentee has to go into the relationship thinking I" need to offer my mentor something in return", that’s adding on another layer onto the fuzzy rules. If the mentor sees value as growth and success in the mentee’s life then great. Otherwise we might as well turn this into a job description with KPIs.

At varsity I had a module called transformation geometry. I sat through the lecture but I had no clue what that lecturer was going on about. There was no logic behind it for me. I knew I didn’t understand but I could not articulate what I didn’t understand. Often if a student raises their hand and says they don’t understand, the teacher is likely to respond with, “what do you not understand?”. “All of it!” is never a good answer. It is likely to be met with irritation from the teacher… Based on where I am in my career right now, that’s how I view having something of value to offer. It’s hard to ask for help if you don’t know what to ask which can be quite ironic.

Briony: That's a really interesting perspective and I can see why "being of value" and reciprocating could be seen as intimidating. Sometimes though it's as simple as saying: "I don't know what the right questions are, and I don't know what I bring to this relationship, but I really need your mentorship and guidance". That in itself demonstrates a lot of self-knowledge.

What I meant by reciprocity was: match my energy, make me proud that I have taken the time to invest in you, be curious, be honest, ask questions, acknowledge what you don't know, debate with me, work hard, be willing to fail and learn from your failure, and rather take a risk than not try.

Briony: If you were to develop an “avatar” ie a figure representing what a mentor is to you, what would that avatar embody for you?

Eva: It would be someone who sees potential in me, has taken the time to understand my ambitions and personality and uses their experience, knowledge and network to advise, highlight blindspots, grounds my expectations and provides an objective view of my successes and failures, especially the failures, as a way to pay it forward. They provide an up-close view of the destination even though you might still be miles and miles away from arriving.

"A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you" Bob Proctor

Briony: I got the sense from you and many others that there is a need for mentorship, but a fear and/or previous disappointments in developing a mentoring relationship with someone. Could you elaborate?

Eva: A lot of the disappointments happened when it was a formal arrangement. When the relationship didn’t develop naturally, the lifespan was short-lived and fruits from the relationship were few and far in between.

Briony: If someone asked you to mentor them, what would your approach be to being a mentor?

Eva: If someone were to ask me to be their mentor I’d find it strange and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t know how to proceed. Instead of asking me to be their mentor, they should ask questions and communicate regularly with me. Start building a relationship with me.

Briony: What suggestions do you have around how to make the concept of mentoring less intimidating?

Eva: While mentees must be willing to put in the work and represent their mentor well, I think potential mentors need to be on the lookout for mentees. People in whom they recognise a seed of potential and can guide them to grow into a flourishing tree.

Briony: What else can you add to this conversation?

Eva: Sheryl Sandberg says “excel and you will get a mentor”. As a mentee, you need to get out of your comfort zone, put in the effort and look out for opportunities to connect with people who are at the level you want to be and are open to providing input when you ask.

"Excel and you will get a mentor" Sheryl Sandberg

Briony: Do you have questions for me to consider and respond to in this conversation?

Eva: What is your motivation to mentor and since this motivation exists, why wait for the mentee ask first?

Briony: Most people get to a point in their life where they want to pass on their knowledge, share their life lessons and do something that is bigger than themselves. I have had great mentors in my life and I want to pay forward the investment that they made in me.

Another reason is that I have made many mistakes in my life and learned a lot as a result - I want to share those lessons with others and help them see their careers and lives from different lenses.

And if I am honest one of my reasons is self interest. It's a wonderful feeling to serve others, to know that I have contributed to their development, to their ability to be more curious, more engaged in life, more successful and ultimately so that in time they can mentor others too. That feeds my soul!

Eva: Do you think mentorship would work better if the mentors did the asking?

Briony: I have on a few occasions offered to mentor some people. Sometimes it's worked for a while but by and large where it sustained the longest, has been where the mentee has taken the initiative, because it was something that the mentee wanted. But that said, I have had many informal mentoring relationships where both parties have "clicked" and we have found ourselves in a mentoring relationship without really needing to ask.

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear" Buddha

It's not going to stop me from offering to mentor people that interest me. Eva, you for instance are someone that I know I would really like to mentor!

What do you see as the complexities (and solutions) in mentor-mentee relationships?


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