People seek out mentors at all different stages of their career and for a variety of reasons. Whether they are trying to gain visibility in their industry, obtain a promotion, move to a new business unit, or simply determine their next career goals, mentoring can help many professionals advance. Traditionally this relationship has looked more directive, with the experienced mentor teaching the protégé what they considered useful and necessary. Yet protégé-led mentoring can be even more effective.
Protégé-led mentoring means that the mentee or protégé is actively involved in their own development and making sure they maximize the time they get with their mentor. It requires coming to mentoring meetings with questions and ideas, doing follow up work in between sessions, and keeping an open mind to actively hear what their mentor is sharing. Depending on the participants, it also may mean that protégés handle the scheduling of meeting times and/or initiates them.
Focus and Effectiveness
Though mentors experience many benefits, let’s be clear: the point of mentoring programs is to assist the mentee in their professional development. This assistance should therefore be specific to the protégé in order to serve their needs effectively. The concept sounds obvious, but gets more complicated in practice:
Suppose you have a more experienced mentor working with a junior protégé, and there is a personality dynamic at play where the protégé is taking their time opening up about what their professional goals are for some reason. Maybe they think their goals are unrealistic, maybe their mentor has a totally different communication style that they find intimidating, or they simply need more time to get clarity. Whatever the reason, the mentor gets impatient and decides to take the reins to make this a productive relationship. The mentor understands that they have skills and knowledge that which can benefit the protégé (that is why they’re doing this after all), so they identify which helpful skills can be taught most easily and get on with it.
Could this dynamic work out productively? Perhaps, but if the mentor allows this protégé to lead, the whole interaction has a greater chance of meaningful success. Simply put: If a protégé isn’t leading with clear communication about their goals, neither the mentor or protégé is going to have an obvious path to proceed down. It is simply too ambiguous. Even if the goal is still to decide on a particular goal, protégés need to lead the interaction with some level of clarity so the relationship can proceed in an effective, targeted way.
Switching the leadership role could look like the mentor being more conversational, asking involved questions, and providing general guidance for the protégé to articulate their goals rather than advancing over the protégé with their own agenda. When the focus becomes only what the mentor can conveniently teach, there is a greater chance of the relationship going off-track from the mentee’s developmental needs. Therefore it is important to put the mentee in a more active role from the beginning.
Cultivating Self-Awareness and Accountability
If protégés are to lead of course, there is homework to be done before they work with their mentor. Compared to going at it alone, a mentoring program is a safer space in which mentees can take a decisive stance in their own development and think deeply about their future—if they are willing to take the lead. When doing their prep work, protégés may be surprised to discover many of their professional goals are also challenging on a personal level. They can be more vulnerable in exploring their own aspirations, and at the same time enjoy a structured environment with nuanced feedback from their mentor.
It is also excellent practice to cultivate this state of reflection and self-awareness during a mentoring program, because future leaders will need it throughout their career. An underrated skill, self-awareness is essential to balance the requirements of being a leader.
Protégés who lead their partnership will also shoulder responsibility for the relationship and develop a sense of accountability. Rather than just be directed, they must become active partners. This equalizes the playing field and requires an additional level of maturity. Mentees become accountable for their own growth and for making the most of their mentor’s time, which is only fair since mentors are making an investment.
Beyond Technical Skills
A mentor can’t teach their mentee who they are or what their leadership style is, but they should help guide them find their own answers. Helping protégés with leadership development is a difficult and often undefined process that goes beyond technical skills. Yet it can be less nebulous to tackle these subjects when mentees have an active, responsible role.
When programs are mentor-led, it can be easy for the dynamic to simply become based on teaching skills, because that is a tangible way to help. Mentoring involves transferring skills, but can’t rest only on technical ability when leadership asks much more of people. The mentor can always share their technical knowledge and experience, but without understanding more about the protégé’s goals and personality the exchange may stop at that surface level or get off-course. The mentee may learn a new skill that helps them do their job more quickly, for example, but that might not be in alignment with their goals if they actually want to transition out of that role. They also could improve their technical skills without cultivating the interpersonal skills necessary for leadership.
While it is less vulnerable to rest in the realm of technical skillset, mentoring relationships ideally exist for comprehensive professional development. When protégés take the time to understand their own goals and lead discussions about them, mentors will be better able to go beyond just teaching technical skills. They can impart targeted wisdom that aids protégés in developing their own authentic leadership. Having mentees reflect and explore their own areas of strengths and weaknesses allows them to work on them with their mentor in a more powerful way.
Getting protégés to mindfully design their own success sets them up for faster growth, higher engagement with the process, and more meaningful interactions. Ultimately, they are able to create their own growth while maximizing their time with their mentor.