How to Mentee
As mentees, our responsibility goes beyond absorbing knowledge and trying to look good.
English is strange. The word “mentor” can be both a noun and a verb — or, more technically speaking, a “verb [with object].”
"Mentee" is another matter. For starters, it sounds awkward and makes one feel like a large sea mammal. But what’s worse is the fact that, for some arbitrary linguistic reason, it can never be a verb. Properly defined, a mentee is: “a person who is advised, trained, or counseled by a mentor.” As a former intern and apprentice at Viget, I've been a mentee for quite some time. And while the definition isn’t inaccurate, it leaves out an important part of what I think the mentee role should be.
If we want to be more than the shamwows of wisdom and knowledge, we need to start taking responsibility for our side of the mentor/mentee relationship.
So, how do we avoid getting stuck in our nounness? What does it mean to mentee?
1. Get to know your mentor
Get to know them as thoroughly as they’re supposed to get to know you. Without being intrusive, keep an eye out for things that help you understand them. What makes them happy or excited? What makes them stressed? What’s their communication style and does it differ based on the situation they’re in? In your first 1:1, try asking them what they want to get out of this experience and how you can help them achieve it.
2. Advocate for them (sort of)
The time, effort, and skill it takes to be a great mentor isn’t recognized nearly as much as it should be. You don’t have to march up to their boss and tell them how great they are — but don’t hesitate to talk about it if you ever have the chance. If people ask you how your work is going, talk about how your mentor has helped you grow. Every company can benefit from great mentors, but first they need to know who those mentors are.
3. Teach them.
Everyone, no matter how inexperienced they are, has something to teach. Good mentors want to learn from their mentees. Share tips or insights from past jobs or internships. Be open about what excites or inspires you. Know a cool new design tool? Share it — who knows, maybe they haven’t seen it.
4. Show up
...early, if you can. Call it a cliche, but arriving at the office before your mentor and leaving after them shows that you’re invested. You don’t have to do it all the time — and if this really isn’t your style, then create your own version. For instance, if your mentor goes to an industry event, ask if you can go with them. Or, better yet, scour Meetup and EventBrite and invite them to something you find interesting (preferably industry-related).
5. Give them the freedom to fail
A great mentor/mentee relationship should be about creating a space where you can both be open and honest about imperfection. No matter how talented your mentor is, or how much experience they have, they’re going to make mistakes. They shouldn't have to hide them. If you’re talking about their work, try asking if there’s anything they would do differently, or anything they felt particularly challenged by. You can learn from their struggles almost as much as you can learn from your own.
Oh, and don’t be surprised if, at some point, you both feel like you’ve failed each other. You’ll mess up the same assignment for the third time, or fail to follow their directions. Your mentor will give you the wrong feedback, or push you too hard, or not push you hard enough. When that happens, avoid shutting down, no matter how tempting it might be. Do not, and I repeat, do not take the “it’s fine” approach. Talk about it. Be respectful and honest, then move on.
At this point, you might be thinking two things:
Isn’t being mentored hard enough? Shouldn’t we just focus on growing and learning? After all, isn’t that what our mentor wants?
Here's the thing: growing is never easy, but it's much easier when you trust the person helping you grow. By investing time in menteeing, you're investing in your relationship with your mentor. You're building trust, which will impact your ability to grow.
All of this is great, but I really don’t think I’m capable of this/my mentor doesn’t need this.
Mentee-ing, like so many things, requires turning a deaf ear to the doubt-inducing voice in your head — the one whispering that you don't have much to offer anyway, and that it would be much better to keep your head down and mind your own business. If it helps, just remember this: everyone hears that voice, and if everyone listened to it, your mentor wouldn't be mentoring you.
For more tips on making the most of mentorship, check out this article by People Director Emily Bloom.