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Top tips for being a successful mentee

By 16/10/2014

A mentor can help an aspiring professional understand current trends in a particular field. They can provide wisdom and insight on developing and testing approaches in career planning and professional development, help you understand and navigate workplace politics, expand your network,  challenge your thinking and share experiences about work life balance. Everyone can benefit from mentorship no matter how old or experienced.

Soon after I graduated from college, I started my first internship at an international development association, the Society for International Development (SID).  At SID, I developed my focus on development issues in Africa and interacted with various professionals working on various aspects of International Affairs. Over the last 15 years, a handful of these contacts became my mentors. Today, they continue to play a significant role in my professional life.

For most of my mentors, the relationship developed naturally.  I admired their values and accomplishments. I was articulate about wanting to learn from them. They were willing to give me time. We clicked and the rest is history… Well, not always. The reality is I had to first and foremost take responsibility for my career and define ways to develop and cultivate and nurture this critical relationship.

 Below are my top tips for being a successful mentee:

1. Immerse yourself in your field of interest – By staying up to date with key policy issues, you can analyze the dynamics of your country’s policy and research circles. Sign up for key events, listservs and related publications.

2. Go where you can find good mentors – They can be found at your current organization or at the institution you would like to end up at. Join a reputable Association and volunteer your services.  For example, the Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) boasts a large membership of more than 4500 members who can provide valuable knowledge and advice.

3. Be open about your potential mentor Your mentor does not need to be your friend and come from your background. Is she known for encouraging and aspiring younger professionals? Is he a senior, more reserved high profile professional? You may be tempted to impress him but be smart about your approach. You may have already done amazing things in your career but in some cultures, bragging about one’s accomplishments is looked down upon.

4. Define the relationship – Once you have found your potential mentor, clearly articulate what you are looking for in this mentorship and for how long. This provides your mentor an opportunity to let you know what they can in turn offer. Building trust and respect takes time. Focus on the relationship instead of short-term gains (i.e. finding a job).

5. Prepare for each interaction –Show that you are efficient and professional. Define how much time you need, get to your meeting on time and prepare an agenda with specific questions and possible solutions. This shows you are serious about your work.

6. Listen intently – Sometimes we can be set in our own ways and not pay attention to what’s being said. Note a key takeaway from every conversation.Prepare to receive feedback on what seems to work and what does not. Take out the personal and you will learn the most from constructive criticism.

7. Be honest – It’s easy to get in the habit of trying to please your mentor. After all you want to be like them so why not tell them what they want to hear. Be honest about who you are, your professional and personal aspirations and where you are in your journey and what you are experiencing. Your mentor will respect that.

8. Learn about your mentor – How did she get to this stage in her career? Is there a time where he thought there was no way out of a situation, how did they get out of it? Who inspires them? Mentors love to be asked this question because it shows that you are curious and ready to learn. At the same time, remember that while this person may have a lot of wisdom and experience in certain areas, they also do not have all the answers.

9. Follow up/Stay in touch – Mentors are taking time to meet with you and impart their knowledge. Follow up with a thank-you note after each meeting/interaction or letter of recommendation for a job or school. Keep your mentor abreast of key developments in your career.

10. Evaluate and Handle with care – Some mentors are for a season. You will know when it’s time to move on. This relationship is based on free will. Don’t force it. Taking the advice is a recommendation and not a requirement. Handle this relationship with care and wisdom.

11. Be patient – Is your relationship with your mentor not working out? Be patient and if it’s time to move on, remember that there are still good mentors are out there. Prepare yourself to drive your own development and remain open. Before you know it, you will find them or they will find you.


This post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However, these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec.

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