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Leading while learning: Making the most of being a mentee

10 practical tips for mentees to consider as they strive to reach their highest potential with the help of a mentor

Studies have shown mentoring leads to a happier, more productive workforce, and higher retention of employees.[1] Assertive mentees are more likely to ask for challenging assignments and increases in pay.[2]  However, the word "mentee" commonly evokes passivity or submissiveness. Even the traditional definition, "a person who is advised, trained, or counseled by a mentor,"[3] connotes the mentee is never in the driver's seat. Yet in the most fruitful mentor/mentee relationships, mentees steer the relationship, assume a leadership role and help  set the course and destination.[4] This article outlines 10 practical tips for mentees to consider as they strive to reach their highest potential with the help of a mentor. 

1.     Finding a meaningful mentoring relationship requires effort.  If you are holding your breath in anticipation of a brilliant and committed mentor who notices your potential by happenstance and who will put you on "the yellow brick road to happiness and fortune, you'll be waiting a long time" and likely be let down.[5]  To make progress in your life and your career, a good first step is to proactively search for and pursue those people who can aid you.[6]  Gaining a good and willing mentor typically involves researching who you want to be in the role, knowing why you want that person, and then pursuing the relationship.  Even with the effort, though, it is important to remember that no one is entitled to a mentor.  In most instances mentor/mentee relationships take shape organically and "[t]he strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides."[7] 

2.     Know the difference between a friend/parent/therapist and mentor. Avoid seeking mentors for "excessive hand-holding" or validation of your feelings.[8]  Instead, spend the time with your mentor determining how to overcome specific obstacles or how to achieve specific goals.[9]  Even though the "giving behavior" of a mentor can in some instances provide some indirect benefits to the mentor, a mentee should never forget that the time and energy spent mentoring are real costs mentors pay when supporting mentees.[10]  So, mentees should "resist the temptation to wring evermore value" out of their mentors, especially in situations better suited to the listening ear of a peer, friend, or family member.[11

3.     Be realistic in your expectations of your mentor.  You may not get a lot of time with your mentor.  While some mentors may prefer formal meetings with an agreed upon schedule, others may form more productive relationships over last minute invitations for coffee every so often.   Do not be dismayed if a mentor seems to be fitting you in to her schedule based upon convenience.  Being open to formal and informal mentoring based upon your mentor's flexibility, schedule, style, and preference will likely lead to more meaningful and recurring interaction between you. 

4. Respect your mentor’s time.  Remember that mentors are not waiting idly for the next opportunity to assist a mentee but instead are handling their own demanding careers and lives.[12]  Being intentional and thoughtful about your time together is the key to getting a return on your joint investment of time.  Here are a few practical suggestions for being prepared to make the most of your time together:

     I.         If possible, email your mentor ahead of your meeting with bullet-pointed questions, ideas, and any progress you have made. This note gives your mentor time to prepare, process the information, and be more helpful.

  II.         Complete agreed-upon items from prior meetings before arrival.

  1. Reflect on and absorb advice given in prior sessions before arrival. 

 IV.         Come with a specific problem, question, or opportunity you are seeking.  Do not waste your "shot seeking general guidance."[13] Do not ask a question that you can find the answer out for yourself. [14]

    V.         Do not complain about the work you have or the people with whom you work.  Be positive. 

 VI.         Respect agreed-upon time limits.  Do not swing by just to "catch up."[15]

  1. Be gracious.  After your meeting, follow up with a short email of thanks with an update of what you have accomplished since you met.

5.     Let your mentor know specifically what you are seeking.  Vague ramblings to your mentor about wanting to be awesome like that person someday may feel warranted in the moment but will not get you any closer to your goals.  Instead, be prepared to discuss what you actually need.  For example, you can discuss that you are seeking: 

     I.         Advice regarding mastering a specific skillset, learning a substantive body of law, or building a practice;

  II.         Proactive “air cover," in the form of "protection from negative publicity or damaging contact” with those senior to you,[16]

  1. Advocacy in the form of vouching for you: for promotion to shareholder; for an opportunity to run with a larger scale project; generally within the firm or community in an effort to help gain name recognition, or; by making a specific, personal introduction to someone meaningful to your goals.


6.Different stages of your career life may require different mentors.  Mentor/mentee relationships are not just for early in your career.  As your career evolves, varying types of guidance and advice will be needed.  Many successful mentees seek out multiple mentors and "target" a range of "leaders whose style they can complement" and from whom they can learn.[17]  Laterals may seek to learn the lay of the land in their new organization regarding internal politics, billing practices, or policies. Those recently promoted from associate to shareholder may need guidance regarding how to transition smoothly, delegate matters successfully, share credit fairly, or increase profitability.  However, a mentor may be less certain regarding where to start in giving guidance to mentees who are not “green.” Being forthright with a mentor at every career stage regarding weak spots, blind spots, and goals is critical to a productive relationship. 

7.     Be loyal.  The mentor/mentee relationship is a "two-way street."[18]  Remember that"influence and inspiration come from the person, not the position."[19]  Even though the mentor is ostensibly the person with the knowledge and the resources to share, mentees should seek to be just as generous with their mentors.  Mentees should always be aware of opportunities to: Support their mentors' projects and initiatives; be their mentors' window into the rest of the organization, the mentee's age group, new technology,[20] and internal undercurrents; and advocate and vouch for their mentors amongst their own circle of influence.  

8.    Respect confidentiality.  Often the best way that mentors help is by sharing their experiences.   Do not violate a mentor's trust by repeating to others sensitive details shared with you in trust regarding your mentor's life, career path, or war stories. 

9.     Show that you are coachable.  It does not show weakness to acknowledge that you do not know everything and to follow guidance.  Be humble and put pertinent parts of your mentor's advice into action.  If you want your mentor to keep investing in you, reinforce his actions through showing that the time he is spending with you is making a difference]

10.  Remember in the end you are responsible for your own choices.  Having an insightful and dedicated mentor is not a substitute for self-guided, decision-making and personal assessment.  Mentees are often most successful when they take the time to "absorb the advice of some experienced mentors, while also trusting their own instincts to guide them."[22]  No matter what, you have to live with the outcomes of your choices.  So, even having an ideal mentor does not remove your duty to determine your own best action plan.[23]


Effort, self-analysis, respect, accountability, and initiative are the catalysts for successful mentoring relationships.  By rejecting the notion that a mentee's role is merely the passive half of the mentorship and instead by embracing an active leadership role, mentees can reap tangible successes from mentoring relationships. 


[1] See Adam Grant, In the Company of Givers and Takers, Harvard Business Review,  Apr. 2013, available at

[2] See Sheryl Sandberg & Nell Scovell, Lean In- Women, Work and the Will to Lead 66 (2013).

[3] Oxford Dictionary of English (2d ed. 1989).

[4] Judy T. Zerzan, MD, MPH, et al, Making the Most of Mentors: A Guide For Mentees, Academic Medicine, Vol. 84, No. 1,  January  2009,  at 140.

[5] Diane Coutu, Finding the Right Mentors, in HBR Guide to Getting the Mentoring You Need, 917, Kindle file (Harvard Bus. Review Press 2014).

[6] Id., at 921.

[7] Sandberg, supra note 2, at 67.

[8] See id., at 71.

[9] Id.

[10] Grant, supra note 1.

[11]Jeanne C. Meister & Karie Willyerd, Accelerate Your Development: Tips for Millenials, in HBRGuide to Getting the Mentoring You Need 1436, 1503, Kindle file (Harvard Bus. Review Press 2014).

[12] Sandberg, supra note 2, at 71.

[13] Id. at 69.

[14] See id. at 68.

[15] Id.

[16] Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, & Laura Sherbin, Guide to Getting the Mentoring You Need, Harvard Business Review  (Jan.2014), available at

[17] Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, & Laura Sherbin, The Relationship you Need to Get Right, in Guide to Getting the Mentoring You Need 155, 268 (Harvard Bus. Review Press 2014).

[18] Gay Gaddis, 5 Ways To Make The Most Out Of Having a Mentor, Forbes, (Nov. 5, 3013), available at

[19] Mark Sanborn, You Don't Need a Title To Be A Leader In Life-How Anyone Anywhere Can Make a Positive Difference 7 (2006) .

[20] See Alison Griswold, Why Reverse Mentors Are So Important, Business Insider, (Oct. 3, 2013), available at

[21]  See Sandberg, supra note 2, at 68.

[22]David Cohen, Use Your Head, But Trust Your Gut, The Wall Street Journal Blog (Jan. 2, 2013 12:34 PM),

[23]Bob Sutton, Five Signs Your Mentor is Giving You Bad Advice, LinkedIn (June 13, 2014, 2:15 PM),


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Jenna M. Bedsole

Jenna Bedsole, shareholder in the Birmingham office of Baker Donelson, is a member of the Labor & Employment Group. She has represented employers in a...

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Staci M. Pierce

Staci Pierce is an associate in the Birmingham office of Baker Donelson  where she focuses her practice on a variety of transactional matters for the financial services,...

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