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What a good mentoring relationship looks like

by Nancy Uddin

February 29, 2024

Behind every successful leader lies an inspiring teacher: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Oprah Winfrey and the late actor Chadwick Boseman have all greatly credited their success to receiving meaningful mentorship in their lives.  

A mentor “is someone that has experience in a certain situation (whether that be in work or life) that provides guidance, support and motivation to someone in need of guidance, support and motivation,” says Paras Memon, a design teacher at SuperHi and former mentor to dozens of design students.  

Effective mentorship can be a vehicle toward success — people interested in exploring mentorship should consider the following questions that ultimately promote personal, creative and professional development. 

What does a successful mentor-mentee relationship really look like? 

Mentors and their mentees should establish realistic expectations and what kind of commitment they're making from the very beginning. “If it's more of a professional relationship, make sure you're not contacting each other after hours, and if it's more lax, make sure to continue following up and treat it like a relationship that should be built and not something you’re trying to get something out of,” says Danaé Reid, a model, social media director, entrepreneur, mentor and mentee. You can schedule check-ins and use the time to honestly communicate and set boundaries.  

When mentors are older than mentees, it can be easy to operate on ageist power dynamics. “Mentors usually have this thing that a mentee is striving for, so it's really easy to manipulate a person,” says Reid. 

 

These relationships are often most successful when they're symbiotic: Both the mentee and the mentor are learning from each other, says Anandita Singh Vidyarthi, the cofounder of Asian Ink., a Chicago-based creative collective for Asian American Pacific Islander communities.  

While this is all easier said than done, it’s helpful to have an open conversation about what your needs, goals and bandwidth are as a mentor or mentee. Some questions that can identify a successful mentoring relationship include: 

  • How do you learn best?  

  • What is the best way to reach you?  

  • When is the best time to connect?  

  • How would you like to receive feedback? 

What does a good mentor do? 

“I think a healthy mentor-mentee relationship looks like people with an open mind; mentors should be willing to give up control,” says Teya Knapp, founder of A Safe Space, a nonprofit organization that connects young people with mentorship to uplift community wellness practices.  

“Even if you care about someone and you want them to take your advice or do things better and you feel like your advice is the best way, as a mentor it's your job to just be there for them. If they want to hear what you have to say or if they don't, we must be nonjudgmental with where they are at in their lives.”  

How do I identify a potential mentor or mentee?

You can find a mentor/mentee formally, at networking events, or informally, through word of mouth or social media. 

“I’ve typically met my mentees through mutual connections via friends, family, colleagues, online on community Slacks or social media,” says Memon. “Someone either had a question about shifting careers into design, enrolling in a bootcamp or going back to school for design, or needed a pep talk for a job hunt in design, and I volunteered to chat. Those conversations turned into something larger and naturally evolved to match something close to a mentor/mentee framework.” 

If you are interested in more niche sectors, you can join identity-based or activity-based groups. The Hidden Genius Project mentoring program trains and mentors Black male youth in California on technology creation and entrepreneurship. Zenith Cooperative offers mentorship and community to emerging writers. You can potentially find mentors in Out in Tech, a Slack channel for the QTBIPOC tech community.  

The key is taking initiative. Mentees should be curious, persistent and transparent when reaching out to a potential mentor. Feel free to drop a few lines about who you are and what piques your interest in connecting with the mentor. While mentees can gain knowledge, mentors can also gain insight into new ideas and technologies through a fresh perspective. Mentors and mentees should be excited to shape each other’s lives. 

What are some of the benefits of mentoring relationships?   

You can exchange experiences, stories, events, spaces and opportunities through mentoring relationships. Mentors can provide exposure, visibility, accountability, coaching and even practice assignments to work toward mentees’ career goals. Mentoring relationships can also provide friendship, social tips and affirmations to help lift mentees’ sense of self, and provide them with a role model.  

Mentoring relationships can touch on different life spheres, from career development and professional goals to the psychosocial, and mentors can provide a range of support, from giving career path advice to mentees to helping boost their self-esteem. Young people with a mentor are 130% more likely to hold leadership positions, according to Mentor, an organization connecting young people with mentors. A majority — that’s 87% — of mentors and mentees say they feel empowered by their mentoring relationships and have developed greater confidence, according to diversity organization Moving Ahead’s research.  

For BIPOC, systemic obstacles often stand in the way of accessing financial wealth and business opportunities. Mentorship can serve as a bridge and resource to help close the racial wealth gap.  

Ultimately, these relationships work both ways; they’re interdependently rewarding. Like Memon’s, Reid’s, Knapp’s and Vidyarthi’s journey into mentorship, an effective mentoring relationship often transforms a mentee into a great mentor eventually. 

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