Perennial advice from Ian McAllister in this post about both proteges and mentors getting value out of their engagements, recognising that both parties invest energy and effort in building the relationship.
Ian is Director of Amazon Day, and previous Director of Product at Airbnb. He’s had several mentors himself over his career, and mentors a number of professional colleagues and also start-up founders.
He explains that the most successful mentor-protege relationships share these attributes:
Read more to explore these in additional detail.
Mutually understood goals
Before beginning ongoing engagement (or in the initial discussion), the protege should communicate the goals of the interaction. Examples Ian gives are helping the protege to get promoted, resolve issues with performance, or improve specific skills like communication. He also advises that it’s helpful if the mentor has goals too (such as gaining deeper understanding in a new area), but warns that the protege’s goals should take precedence.
The protege should be responsible for driving the schedule (including booking sessions) and setting the discussion topics. He/she should bring a list of topics for discussion to each meeting. For each topic, he/she should:
Focus on approaches rather than tactics
Building on his earlier point about proteges driving the discussion: an engagement will be more valuable if the protege pulls advice from the mentor on how to think about a given topic i.e. an approach to take, rather than simply concentrating on tactical ideas. He says: “Getting ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘now vs later’ advice from a mentor is more valuable than ‘how’ advice”. Learning mental models and frameworks from a mentor will be very beneficial in your career. “The most productive discussions”, he says, “usually turn a little abstract rather than staying narrow”.
Focus on listening and learning
While it may be tempting to promote yourself and your accomplishments to an influential mentor, or top an anecdote or idea with your own, Ian counsels against this. Instead, listening to extract examples, ideas and learning from your mentor, and then exploring how to apply them to your current and future situations, will serve you better.
Transparency and feedback
Ian argues that a mentor needs to be honest with the protege and present clear feedback. Examples he shares are where the mentor chooses not to give the protege a desired referral, or where he/she has discomfort with other aspects of the relationship e.g. “Next time we meet, try to prepare some discussion topics ahead of time.” Trust is necessary for frank feedback, but he recommends trying to get to candour quickly.
Ongoing review and dissolution at the appropriate time
And, in the spirit of transparency, Ian recommends reviewing the engagement and ending it once it has run its course. Examples he gives are: a series of unproductive meetings, the mentor not being a good fit for the protege, or shifting needs of the protege over time. A protege “shouldn’t be afraid to explicitly dial down the frequency of meetings or stop them entirely”, he says, sharing an example of where the meetings had turned into chats and he was no longer learning much from that mentor.
See Quora for Ian’s original full advice, in response to the question “What are the most important attributes of a successful mentor and protege relationship?”. Other responses are also viewable at that link, including humility, trust and cultural fit. Please let us know your thoughts on key requirements for impactful interactions in the comments below.