10 Steps to Establishing Fruitful Mentorship Relationships

Marilyn Tam

02 November 2020

As a new executive trainee in my first professional job after college, I had little understanding of what a mentor could do for me. I learned the hard way how a mentor can help. A colleague of mine, Steve, was an unlikely mentor. A fresh New York City transplant to Los Angeles, Steve felt superior to everyone in the organization. He was intense and focused on success, so much so he would strive to win regardless of collateral relationship damage. I learned a lot from Steve. In his own strange way, he was my first career mentor.


Mentors provide a powerful and memorable way of learning and growing.

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Mentors show up in different ways in our lives. They are there to help you achieve your potential and find your own center and values. Sometimes you have to seek them out and persuade them to take you on. After my initial challenging experience with Steve, I have had many more supportive mentors. I have also refined how to seek counsel and identify inspiration and wisdom from people who would be suitable mentors. Here are 10 things I’ve learned throughout my career about establishing positive mentorship relationships.

  1. Determine where you are in your career and life. Your personal and professional situation dictate the type of mentor(s) from whom you would benefit. You have to know what you need in support before you can look for people who can help you.
  2. Spread a wide net for your potential mentors. Look for mentors inside your organization, industry and community. You may need more than one person to provide the breadth of knowledge, experience and connections you are seeking. Your mentor may even be someone younger or in another industry. Focus on what you need, not on any preconceived idea of what a mentor should be. Be open to the possibilities.
  3. Learn about your mentor before you request to be mentored. Mentors, by definition, are excellent at their craft; that is why you are seeking their guidance. To persuade them to be your mentor, you have to understand what may motivate them to agree. What was their path to success? Are there similarities in your journeys? What about in interests and avocations? 
  4. Determine what you can give back to your mentor. What value can you offer them? Your enthusiasm and follow through? Your fresh perspective and grassroots knowledge? Mutual passions and hobbies? A way for them to support a rising leader like they once were? 
  5. Be respectful and honoring of their time and energy. It’s easy to get overexcited and expect too much time and attention from your mentor. Remember, they are busy and serving you out of their goodwill. Be judicious about how much you ask from them. Honor your time commitments. If you requested half an hour, keep to that time; only extend if they initiate it. 
  6. Show results. Mentors are rewarded when their mentees accomplish positive outcomes from their advice and guidance. Highlight the good news when you communicate with them. 
  7. Give it time and your own efforts. Mentors are not magicians. They are there to point out how you may achieve more if you follow their insights based on their experience and breadth of knowledge. You have to devote the energy, time and focus to be successful. 
  8. Reassess as you progress. Every once in a while, even with all the efforts expended by both parties, you may find your mentorship relationship is simply not a good fit. Or, over time, you and your mentor may diverge in interests. Be honest in your assessment of your relationship. Are you committed to the interactions? When you expend less than 100 percent effort, you will get less results. If that is the case, increase your attention and you will likely see improved outcomes. If there are practical reasons for the reduced engagement, gracefully and gratefully disengage
  9. Be appreciative and find ways to give back. Show your gratitude to your mentor(s). Show them how you are flourishing because of their counsel. Follow through on the ways in which you can offer them value in return.
  10. Be a mentor. Offer to share your knowledge and insights with others. You learn more about what you thought you knew when you guide someone else. Through the process, you also expand your network and sphere of influence when you outreach to others. Mentoring is rewarding for your career, your sense of fulfillment and is a powerful way to give back as you climb.

Mentors provide a powerful and memorable way of learning and growing. Some friendships and bonds that grow from a mentor/mentee relationship may last a lifetime. One of my early mentors, long since retired, and I still exchange holiday cards each year. Over the years, we and our families have become friends even though I left the industry we shared many years ago. I am forever grateful for his belief and trust in my abilities before I even had much faith in them myself—Marty B., thank you for your mentorship; I honor you and hold you in my heart. May you, dear reader, also develop the mentor connections that last long after the job is done.

Marilyn Tam

A speaker, best-selling author, consultant, board-certified executive and corporate coach, CEO of Marilyn Tam & Co., and the founder and executive director of Us Foundation. She formerly served as CEO of Aveda Corp., president of Reebok Apparel and Retail Group, and vice president of Nike Inc.

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