Making The Most of Mentorship

Making the Most of Mentorship

Of the dozens of talks I’ve listened to, and given, on early career development; one piece of advice is consistently said – find a good mentor.  This is easier said than done and according to Forbes, 76% of people think mentors are important, but only 37% of people currently have one. I consider myself modestly successful and I owe an incredible amount of that success to the mentors in my life. Anyone who says they got to where they are entirely by themselves is either lying or delusional. How else could a first-generation Canadian immigrant from the Philippines who worked three part time jobs to get himself through college become the youngest-ever director of a Canadian national lab, if not with a little bit of help?

You can’t force it

Mentor-mentee relationships rarely form through formal channels with no background context. Most happen organically, whether it be your direct supervisor, someone in your field you look up to, a collaborator you admire, or even a competitor.

Successful people, especially those with experience in the later years of their career, are often in the legacy building phase of their life. What can they do that will be remembered? What can they pass on to the next generation that will have an enduring impact? How can they improve the world by helping others to unlock their potential? You can leverage this by being a conduit for their knowledge, they have the wisdom, and you have the energy – it’s a match made in heaven.

However, these people also have an astute understanding of what their time is worth and how to invest it most efficiently. That’s typically why they are successful in the first place. To gain their mentorship you need to prove you deserve it. The best way to develop mentorship is by working to solve a problem together.

I believe people are intrinsically deadline driven and goal oriented. We need structure to operate and a finish line to run to. To develop a strong mentorship relationship, come with a problem that needs to be solved – co-create possible solutions, test them, and come back consistently with your progress. This helps you accomplish your goals, tracks your journey, and shows your mentor that you are reliable and worth their time.

Mentorship is a two-way street

Like any healthy relationship, mentorship is rarely one way. Yes, the mentee may gain advice and networks, but the mentor has much to gain as well. For example, there are often skills that younger digital natives have around communication and brand building that older generations lack.

Every mentor I’ve had, whether that be my professor in my PhD, the chair of a board I’m on, a venture capitalist I admire, or my bosses at the NRC, have told me they gained or learned something from our relationship. Everyone has a different lived experience, and by default you have something to share that even the most seasoned and experienced person does not have.

Every relationship has something to teach you

A mindset that has helped me is treating every single person as a mentor in some way. Recognizing that you have something to learn from everyone, no matter their position or title, is an effective way to stay curious and humble.

Last year I was a mentor for the Forbes Under 30 Close the Gap program, which paired me up with racialized students who were often the first in their families to attend college. One of my mentees, a young woman, was struggling with which major to take, business or engineering, and was looking for advice. We shared our stories, our goals, and our perspectives on life. I gave her some strategies for prioritization and time management, and I gained a valuable lesson in the barriers of entry for young Hispanic women in post secondary education in America’s south. By sharing her lived experience with me, I now have a greater appreciation and understanding of how to be a more effective and empathetic leader.

Tips for lasting mentorship

As I begin my transition into my 30s and mid-career, I’m starting to equally serve both roles of mentor and mentee – and both can be equally rewarding. Eventually, you will outgrow your mentor, this is natural and expected. Your contact with them may wane, but the recognition that they were a vital part of your journey will not. Importantly, you will become a mentor to others, without even realizing it. Being a strong and genuine reflection of your values is enough for others to emulate.

Here are a few tips that I’ve found helped me grow and maintain strong mentorship relationships.

  • Asking someone to be a mentor, especially if it’s a cold outreach like via LinkedIn, rarely works.
  • Set regular meetings throughout the year to catch up. Typically, once a quarter works well.
  • Come prepared with a list of accomplishments you’ve made since you last spoke, problems you are having now, and asks for help.
  • Be coachable, humble, and responsive. Time is everyone’s biggest asset – don’t waste yours or theirs.
  • Strive to bring as much value as you take from the relationship.

Lastly, if you are a mentor, consider mentoring someone who doesn’t look like you or have the same background as you do. I wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star about diversity, role models, and leadership that was a call to action. People are more likely to mentor others of the same gender, race, and socio-economic background, which often leaves minorities with less opportunities for mentorship. If we want to unlock the full potential of every member of our society, we need to be willing to mentor those outside our own comfort zones.


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