Career TipsPersonal & Professional Enrichment

Redefining Mentorship (Part 4 of 5) Become A Great Protege!

By Dave Isbell & Taylor Whittington

You’ve found someone who has agreed to mentor you. Great! Now what? How do you make this relationship work for you? In part three of this series, we laid out a few ideas about what makes a good mentor. Here, we’ll share a few ideas about getting the most out of a mentor relationship as a protégé/mentee.

  • Make the relationship rewarding. First of all, you need to remember that your mentor is a busy person who has chosen to share his or her time and expertise with you. Sure, no mentor is going to ask you for payment for being a mentor. It is understood that being a mentor is pro-bono work, it is also understood (or, at least should be) that the mentor is functioning with the best interests of the protégé in mind, and they aren’t in it for financial rewards or solely for their own satisfaction. But trust us on this one, if the protégé does not make the time spent rewarding for the mentor then she is going to limit her investment and eventually cut her losses when it seems like a drain on her own energy or resources. How do you make it rewarding? Sure, throwing your mentor a thank you card, a gift, a really well-written Linkedin recommendation or Yelp review, is a nice gesture (unless it puts the mentor in an ethical dilemma somehow, so be conscientious about things you say, and especially about gifts.) People like to feel important! Gifts and words can be good, but keep reading this list to start generating some deeper thoughts about how your mentor can feel rewarded enough to want to stay invested in your development.
  • Character matters! Mentors want to work with people who they can see themselves in. Character traits like honesty, integrity, resourcefulness, timeliness, willingness to take calculated risks and to admit mistakes, and to learn from failure, etc. go a long way. A protégé often rides on the coat-tails of their mentor (for a little while) and therefore becomes a part of their mentor’s legacy, so it is important to remember that when you fall, their reputation may also take a dent. It is always best policy to keep your mentor informed about your progress, to admit failure, to follow through with their recommendations, to make connection with those people they have introduced you to, to let them know about your successes. A good mentor will work out their own negative feelings or issues that arise from the relationship; however it is not reasonable to expect them to remain committed to helping someone who will not help themselves, especially if they are in a perpetual downward spiral.
  • Manage up. Clearly there is a power differential in this relationship. The mentor has something the protégé needs and therefore carries most of the power. Yet the goal in a good mentorship is to move the protégé into a place of equality with the mentor. When that happens the relationship often becomes more collegial than one that is rooted in the “teacher/student” dichotomy, and it is not uncommon that the relationship will convert at some point to a more mutually reciprocal as a friendship forms. But until you get there, it is important for the protégé to accept and respect their mentor’s leadership status, but also to take ownership of their side of the relationship. Managing up means that the protégé is not waiting for their mentor to do everything and to make all of the decisions. It means that the protégé is setting the goals to be worked on, suggesting meeting times/places, creating the agenda for meetings, taking notes, asking well-researched questions, clarifying information, following through with tasks, keeping the mentor informed, etc. Those who show up expecting that the mentor will do all the work are in for a disappointment. Put in the work though, and it can be a really rewarding experience!
  • Pay your own way. Chances are your mentor has more financial resources than you do. However do yourself a favor by not assuming that the mentor will be the one paying for lunch or other activities that you do together. Since generosity is often a character trait of great mentors, they will often feel compelled to be the one to pick up the check. It can be tempting to let them, but unless they rip it from your hand and insist that it is an insult to their character, don’t allow them to pay! Doing so can frustrate the boundaries of mentorship, turn the relationship into a series of transactional experiences, or ingratiate the power dichotomy that exists at the onset. However, if the mentor insists, then let them know how much you appreciate their kindness, and tell them you are going to pick it up the next time, or pay it forward to someone else. Then follow through with what you said you are going to do.
  • Transcend formal mentorship programmatic limitations. Many studies of formal mentorship programs show that the results are often limited by program parameters that often restrict the participants, or by their nature of being tied to an organization or some kind of programmatic expectations, make the participants feel restricted. Yet an interesting thing happens when researchers study what happens after the formal mentorship program ends, or when a mentor-protégé relationship just forms naturally by the mutual decision of two people. Where formal mentorship programs often show dismal success rates regarding long-term results after the program has ended, informal mentorship has led to profoundly deep and long-term positive outcomes. Why? For one, as I alluded to above, the more transactional the relationship, the less of a positive long-term effect on the protégé, who often attributes his success only to his efforts apart from the mentorship. Further it is not unusual in these kinds of arrangements that the mentor has limited her own investment into the relationship to not extend beyond the initial programmatic goals. This means that while “professional goals” (i.e learning a new skill) may get met, a “personal goal” (i.e. overcoming a character defect), is less likely to be addressed. (Frankly, it is the over-looked character defect that may be more costly to a person’s career outlook!)
  • Put in the time. Another interesting fact from these types of studies is that the longer the mentor relationship is sustained, the more the relationship becomes mutually reciprocal. Over time, the relationship often tends to shift from “teacher/student” to “collegial/professional” to “mutually invested friendship.” Naturally, since attachment is a core human need, the more attached a mentor feels to his protégé, and vice versa, the more the relationship will deepen, increase in value for the protégé and for the mentor, and thus have a greater extent of investment by both parties. So, give it time, protégé. Your mentor may be just the guy who gives you information right now, but if you tend to the relationship, you may end up with a best friend who will go to bat for you no matter what dunder-headed mistakes you make along the way!

The main point here is that the protégé must take ownership of their side of the relationship if they want to get the most out of it. Will all mentorships result in becoming deep, meaningful BFF’s? NO! Sometimes a mentorship lasts the extent of one informational interview, and that is enough! Sometimes it’s just not a fit between two people. That’s fine too! However, like all relationships, when tended and invested in appropriately a mentorship can have tremendous positive impact on both the protégé’s and mentor’s lives in ways that may not have been expected during the onset.


Dave Isbell is the Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment in the MSU Alumni Association and is the primary person responsible for this blog and our corresponding Twitter account. His primary role in the MSUAA is to develop online content that helps Michigan State alumni to live, work, and play better in their own communities. Dave is not able to accept individual appointments, but in developing programs and projects he does draw from his experience as a Licensed Master Social Worker and his background as a professional Career Coach since 1999. Mentorship has played a significant role in his life and he has enjoyed being both the protege and the mentor. 

Taylor Whittington is a student employee (Professional Enrichment Assistant) in the MSUAA and is graduating in May 2018 from Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s in Social Relations & Policy/Bioethics/Science, Technology, Environment & Public Policy from James Madison College. Next fall, she plans to begin a Master’s in Public Health at that school in Ann Arbor.


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