5 Keys to a Successful Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Forming effective mentor-mentee relationships

REACHING YOUR POTENTIAL     |    Oct. 27, 2020

Sometimes, it can feel like you're navigating your career path without a road map. But it is possible to route your career milestones, refine your skills and reach your full potential — without going it alone. Advice gained in a mentor-mentee relationship can give you the help you need to pursue your passions.

Here's how to get started:

1. Choose a Mentor Outside Your Team

"A mentorship relationship needs to be in an environment of honesty and transparency in order to add value," says Edwin de Ligter, an Abbott senior business excellence engineer in Weesp, Netherlands.

De Ligter sought out a mentor after he applied for a site leadership role but didn't get the position. The role he applied for reported to Sieneke Bult-Muntinga, a site director in established pharmaceuticals also based in Weesp. While de Ligter didn't know her personally, he knew Bult-Muntinga had a reputation for being honest and challenging. So, he proactively reached out to her for further counsel on his career goals.

Sieneke Bult-Muntinga, Site Director, Netherlands

Choosing a mentor who isn't your direct manager, as de Ligter did, allows for a more open relationship because the mentor can remain impartial and offer a different perspective than those who work with you daily.

"At the end of the day, as a mentor, you're not judging somebody on their performance. It's safer to ask questions, to be uncertain and to ask for help," she said.

Bult-Muntinga said that while you can achieve that dynamic with a manager, there's always a feeling of, what if my manager sees this as a weakness?

2. Ask For, and Accept, Difficult Feedback

Mentors can reach out to potential mentees, whether it's inviting them to chat over coffee or to a networking event, but the responsibility to maintain the relationship falls squarely with mentees. Schedule recurring meetings in advance on a cadence that best meets your needs.

While mentors may provide real-time guidance, mentees should take initiative to ask for feedback and be ready to reflect on hard truths. For example, while de Ligter didn't land the site leadership role, Bult-Muntinga told him which areas he should improve: Honing his presentation skills, knowing when to step back, and being self-aware.

"I am known to have a somewhat 'big' personality," he said, noting self-reflection was needed to take full advantage of the feedback offered. "Sieneke taught me not to take it personally, but to see every failed attempt as a learning and opportunity to improve and do better next time."

"Be clear on what you want to learn and achieve," de Ligter adds. "Don't expect the mentor to give you the answer to your own career aspirations."

Edwin de Litger, Business Excellence Engineer, Netherlands

He recommends having a career development plan ready. When both mentor and mentee have a shared understanding of goals, both parties can make the best use of their time.

3. Provide Upward Feedback

As leaders move through their careers and rise higher in organizations, it becomes more challenging for them to receive honest feedback from those they manage. A mentor-mentee relationship can benefit mentors too -- allowing them to hear mentees’ concerns and feedback in addition to receiving advice from their own mentors.

"As a mentor, I learned how important it is for people at all levels in the organization to receive regular feedback from their managers or more guidance on how to reflect and act upon received feedback," says Emilie Neukom, an Abbott business unit director in Baar, Switzerland. "Most people are longing for feedback, clear inputs and recognition. That is what keeps them motivated and growing. I now try to apply these learnings with my direct reports and team members more systematically."

Emelie Neukom, Business Unit Director, Switzerland

4. Implement New Skills

Acting on advice from a mentor is just as important as receiving it. Feedback can help you develop new skills that benefit not only your career but your company.

For de Ligter, this meant developing political savvy and strategic thinking. When various stakeholders would visit his site, he was able to practice his presentation skills.

"After each presentation, I would debrief with Sieneke on what I did well and how I could improve," he said. Neukom encourages one of her mentees, a global marketing leader at Abbott, to practice specific action items between sessions. For example, Neukom asked the marketing leader to prepare an elevator pitch and list her strengths. Doing so allowed the mentee to showcase skills, build confidence and accelerate learnings.

5. Expand Your Network

So much of mentor-mentee relationships are focused around giving, receiving and implementing advice that it's sometimes easy to lose sight of other opportunities. Mentors should act as champions for the mentee, pointing out opportunities for growth or connecting the mentee with contacts who may offer additional support.

De Ligter recalls when Bult-Muntinga asked him if he would be interested in leading a maintenance and engineering improvement project. Doing so would give him more exposure to the site leadership team, extending his network and providing more opportunities to practice his presentation skills.

"Be ready to step up and accept new challenges outside your comfort zone," he recommends. Neukom put her mentee, the global marketing leader, in touch with Abbott business leaders, including general managers and vice presidents — positions that many marketing leaders aspire to be in one day.

This was a way to expand the mentee’s network and offer perspective on how leaders got to where they are today. The key is to reevaluate the relationship over time. A mentee may naturally slow contact with their mentor as they grow into their role or career goals change. A mentor may even let their mentee know it's time to seek guidance from someone else. No matter how long or short, these kinds of relationships can provide invaluable experience and lead to vast opportunities — for both parties.