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Tips for Mentees: to Work it Out or “Break Up” with My Mentor?

By Silky Wong posted 01-26-2022 03:29 PM


A functional mentorship experience is exceptionally rewarding, as both the mentors and the mentees can appreciate their own professional growth due to mutually agreed interactions.

At times, however, an agreed-upon mentorship might not work out as expected. Common reasons that lead to an unsatisfactory mentor-mentee relationship are lack of effective communication in the relationship, flawed guidance from the mentor, lack of understanding of the mentee’s needs, changed mentoring goals by the mentee such that the mentor can longer provide support, insufficient time spent in nurturing the mentorship, lack of feedback, and periodic reviews of the mentorship.

Instead of being perceived as an equal partnership, some believe the myth that the mentor has more power in a mentor-mentee relationship. In reality, mentees always have a choice: to work it out or “break up” with their mentors. Here are a few tips for the mentees to consider:

  1. The primary goal of mentorship is to successfully transfer technical knowledge, practical knowledge, experience, enthusiasm, and wisdom. During this process, the mentee is learning how to develop a working professional relationship with another person. The mentee has the right to initiate conversations to review mentoring goals with their mentor to align expectations from both sides.
  2. Review the agreed-upon partnership policy to see if there are changed goals, if any mutually understood commitments were not honored, or if the policy is expired. If the agreed mentorship period has expired, it’s essential to let the mentor know which option you’ve chosen: extend the policy, revise and renew the policy, or end the partnership.
  3. The mentee has the right to discuss any new or revised goals at any time to work it out with the current mentor. Remember: Mentors are not mind-readers; they can’t provide guidance without knowing the mentee’s needs.
  4. Ask yourself: Am I trying to avoid a conversation with my mentor? If yes, why is this relationship beneficial to me? If not, why is it beneficial to keep a mentorship without meeting and/or communicating regularly?
  5. Ask yourself: Have I been assuming that my mentor should reach out first? If yes, why is my assumption valid?

Starting a mentorship is much easier than developing a purposeful mentorship. Before breaking up with a mentor, the mentee should share what worked well and what they would like to improve. Indeed, this act is a gift because it allows the mentor to reflect, learn, and grow. A conversation with open-mindedness from both sides can often result in a fresh start for an existing mentorship. Yes, at times, ending the mentorship at the moment is the best choice. Just remember, restarting a mentorship is always another option in the future.

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By Silky Wong, Ph.D., S.E., P.E., F.SEI, C.Eng, MICE

Silky Wong is a civil and structural engineer manager at Dow Inc. She has more than 16 years of experience in both oil & gas and petrochemical industries, and recently became a fellow of SEI. Wong is an active voting member on various ASCE executive and technical committees, including the Energy Division Executive Committee, SEI Mentoring Committee, and Texas Section Government Affairs Committee.