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Positive Mentoring

Leah Flynn Gallant and Don Camelio

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This talk was co-sponsored by the DSL Professional Development committee and DSLx as part of the 2017 Bite-size Professional Development series.


[Leah] This is about building positive mentoring relationships.  My name is Leah Flynn Gallant.  I work in the Office of Student Activities, and this is my colleague, Don Camelio. 

[Don] Hi everyone.  I work in the office of Residential Education.

[Leah]  And this is sponsored by the DSL Professional Development Committee as well as DSLx Life Learning, which is basically taking our work in terms of student affairs and putting it online. 

We’re going to talk about what is a mentor – so defining that – and talking a bit about mentors in your life and thinking through what those examples have been and what those characteristics are like. And what does that mean to be one and to have one, how to build and sustain a mentoring relationship, and also how to be a resource.

[Don]  First, a mentor is someone that kind of helps to work with folks to identify areas for growth and development. They’re someone that has some experience in those areas, can oftentimes look at someone who’s new to the area that they’re looking to work in, and identify ways to grow. 

They often assist in setting and reaching goals.  So they don’t oftentimes tell you what to do: it’s not really meant to be a directive relationship – they’re not the ones that lead the life for you – it’s more semi-directive.  They’re people that might help come up with ideas, might help you take a thought and organize it into something that’s more cogent and more operationalized, and then help you sort of work out a plan for making that happen. 

They oftentimes are able to give you real-world examples and advice.  A lot of times, mentors are in an area of interest that you are working towards.  Not always – I mean sometimes they just have great other life experiences that you want to learn about – but in most cases, it’s in an area that you want to learn about more, grow towards, maybe become one day yourself.

And finally, they help to transform vision to action. They suspend judgement and listen, and they make inquiries, observe and reflect. 

So they really are meant to be this active thinking partner in your life, and meant to be supporting your beliefs, supporting what you hope to attain, supporting where you hope to go – really seeing things from your lens, and not offering judgment as to what is or is not necessarily possible, but ways things can be accomplished.

[Leah] And I think too, also just to add on to that, mentors is not about someone making a decision for that mentee; it’s about really guiding them to make decisions, serving as a coach of sorts, and asking the right questions to think through those decision makings.

[Don] Uh huh.  How can you be an effective resource for your ment[ee], right?  You provide suggestions and guidance, not necessarily advice, inform them of resources and contacts in your fields, the value of making connections and networking, sharing experiences but not necessarily saying that those experiences have to be the experiences your mentee takes on, being available – but being careful to not be too available because if you’re too available, you’re doing everything for them, and that can happen a lot in these mentor-mentee relationships.  Those boundaries can get blurred and suddenly you find that you’re overextending yourself, you’re putting them ahead of you, you’re doing more work than they are – lots of things can happen, and it can become very problematic – and ultimately, it’s not serving the role that you probably both hoped for.

[Leah] So on the flip side: how to be an effective mentee. You know, having been a mentor and a mentee, and also working a lot with mentees, I think that the biggest piece is to be responsive and appreciative.  So that means that, if they reach out to you to set a first meeting up, and/or you have, to make sure to follow through.  It’s that follow-through piece.

From that first meeting in, you want to be really clear with your goals and what you want to get out of the relationship. “Here’s what I would love to have from you as a mentor.”  That’s your first meeting.  And then the rest, if you have those expectations set – perhaps that might even include a conversation about “Can we meet up for coffee once a month?” – that gives your mentor a guideline of how this relationship will go.  And it’s not like you have to put this in your calendar, how many times we’ll meet up, but you want to be really clear of why you sought them out.  “This is what I need your help with.”  It could be as simple as a job search; it could be a project you’re working on; it could be getting through, you know, this place, MIT. Whether you are a staff, or a new faculty, or a student – that you’re looking for that kind of feedback.  So really being clear with what you want.

Be patient with the process.  So if this is a mentor, somebody that you don’t really know really well, or somebody suggested to you that you get connected with and that had agreed to embark on this relationship with you, that it might be a little bit rocky getting to know each other at first, and kind of getting in groove with one another, but be patient with it.  Be patient with that process, and that the first meeting will not give you all the answers. That goes back to the point that the mentor does not make decisions for you, not is that their role.

And don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for what you need.  If you feel like  not really getting what you need from them in terms of guidance – you’re really looking for constructive feedback, and if they’re not really giving that to you – just ask them.  They may assume maybe you don’t want that. Some people aren’t comfortable with the constructive feedback.  It’s really good to have that as part of a mentor-mentee relationship.

Do take initiative in scheduling meetings and follow through. And if for some reason, you can’t follow through on whatever commitment you make, let them know.

And pay it forward.  Be a mentor in the future.

[Don] The next couple slides go into a little bit of the sort of trouble spots that can often arise in the mentor-mentee relationship, and one of the things that often comes up in our conversations with students and with other people who serve in the mentoring role, is the generation gap.  It can be incredibly valuable, but it is a variable that you want to take into account, right?  We have lots and lots of opportunities to engage with people from all walks of life and all experiences in life, and having an understanding of the differences at play is helpful. 

So let’s think about what generations are present here at MIT that could be in a mentor-mentee relationship?  And we’re thinking about those generic terms that the pop sociologists use: the GenXers, the Millennials, the GenYs, the Boomers, GenZ, right?  I think there’s like the Silent Generation?  So these are rough ideas.  There’s lots of things that our different generations have experienced, and so therefore we ascribe what all of those folks that come from that generation are.  Probably not the best way to go about doing things. Understanding how people’s lives were, and what they’ve lived, and the expectations that they had: that’s all very valuable information because that will help you develop relationships.  Throwing a blanket term and a blanket understanding around everybody you’re working with that might come from a different generation is not something that’s actually going to be all that helpful.  Really getting to know the person that you are thinking about working with in this sort of relationship can go a long way.

[Leah] So if we’re talking about that first conversation, whether that’s formal or informal:  if it’s more of a formal, you’re kind of planning ahead for a 2-hour conversation that can really be shortened to 45 minutes.  Our time is precious here. How can we fit in what we want to fit in a really efficient and effective way? 

So obviously you want to do introductions if this the first time that you’re really chatting with your mentor, or you’re really kind of digging deep and getting to know each other. 

Small talk is great, but you really again want to make time to share your goals and expectations for the conversation. 

Be open and honest with where you both are at. So on the time: the mentee’s point,  you want to say “This is what my year is kind of looking like.  This is where I’m at.  This is what I’m struggling with.” And then the mentor’s side, saying: “This is the time I’m able to give.  This is the perspective I can provide you. I may know somebody else I can connect you with.”

Maximize your time together.   Get specifics first on what that meeting will be about. And don’t be afraid to ask for advice and also share your advice, but remember that there is a difference between guiding advice as opposed to “Tell me what to do.”

And don’t be afraid to assign some homework.  Set a focus for the next meeting, and again, this is more of that formal mentoring relationship pieces, but this can be part of those informal conversations.  “What do we want to talk about next?  Like if we get together, or see each other in another month, you know …“Hey listen, I’ve got a conference coming up.  I could really get your insight about.  Or who I should connect with.”  Keep on task with what you want from that individual.

[Don]  These are some of the things that people often indicate are the rough patches in the relationship.  And oftentimes they are sort of the harbingers of the fall of the mentor-mentee relationship.   Doesn’t necessarily need to be the case: we’re going to troubleshoot some of this together.

But, oftentimes, one of the first things we hear from folks is that people stop showing up. Right, you make an appointment, and the person doesn’t bother coming, whether it’s on the mentee or the mentor side – usually, from what we hear, on the mentee side, but it can be either way. 

You find that there’s this opportunity to work with somebody, but you’re putting in a lot more effort than the other person in the relationship.  There’s not a balance.

You don’t feel like you’re doing a good job, or that you’re available enough.  So this is where – we hear this – I’ve actually felt this in a mentoring relationship before – you’ve taken on too much.  Your boundaries have become blurred; you have too many responsibilities, and suddenly you don’t find yourself present in the moment with the person you’re supposed to be engaging in mentoring.

You hear your mentee found another mentor. [Laughs]  You might be breaking up.

And so some of the things we can anticipate. But how do we get – so again, a lot of times, you see this stuff and you think “Well, that could be a lost cause.  That relationship could be sort of …done.”

But it’s not.  What are some of the things we can do to sort of engage, and flip the script on these problems.  So think about your everyday lives.  I mean, do you work like this?  Is your productivity here all day long? Or are there little peaks and valleys?  That’s the same thing that happens in the long-term relationship with a mentor and mentee.   I mean, hopefully, they’re not huge undulations, right?  But there is some variation.  There are things that come up. Life does happen.  There are – we have to be fluid, right?

How can you get to that level of perspective on a regular basis? That’s hard to do, right?  So surrounding yourself with other people who might be mentoring – you can bounce those ideas off of one another. Because if you find that you’re on an island and you don’t have anybody else that’s doing that – you forget.  We forget sometimes, we forget what the life is like of the person you’re trying to support.

Let’s assume that your relationship with that mentee is ending. It’s ending: there’s nothing you can do to keep it going.  You want to – we’ve all had the value of the relationship, so we want to enhance the probability that they’re going to continue to try these relationships in the future. So if it doesn’t end like you hoped it would – if it ends a little sooner than you would have liked or that they might have liked – it’s really good to try to end it on a positive note as best as you can.

[Leah] We want to provide you with a bit of background on how to find a mentor, so find someone you respect and would like to learn more from. So that might also mean that you have to talk some friends and colleagues, or peers, or folks that you know that may be also interested in the same field for some ideas, to connect you with, if you don’t really have somebody in mind. You may find somebody that is really great through a program that you’re a part of too. 

You want to also find out, learn more about what this person has done, what they do, where they might be going – you know, what have they done in their field, for example; what is pertinent to where you want to go.  In terms of…I have many different mentors, depending upon whatever time of life or interest that I’m in.  You know, whether it’s for work – and different pieces of work, so whether it’s about leadership development, for example, or management.  I have a couple of different mentors that I continue to reach out to.

Make the ask for a meeting, and then make the ask to become a mentee.  And be really clear about why you sought them out and also what, again, those expectations of what you’re hoping to get from the relationship.

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