When we were in school, we typically had a guidance counselor help us select classes and manage college applications. If we went to college, we had an advisor help us navigate programs and disciplines, understand completion requirements and begin thinking about a career path. However, when we join an organization, that individualized support disappears unless we have rock star leaders or dedicated career services teams.  

Often, we expect our manager to help us identify priorities, make connections, highlight opportunities for professional development and, even, help direct our career paths. Some managers excel at this, but many do not.  

So, where do adults turn to for continued self-discovery and professional development? Securing a formal mentor is a good place to start. A mentor can be someone inside your company who is in a position or department that you aspire to break into, an external expert who has achieved what you desire to, or even a former manager.  Over the course of my career, I have heard people say they want to be a mentor but have no idea what to do, what to say or how to shape the relationship. Many have said something along the lines of, “I have had coffee a couple of times with my mentee, but then we didn’t know where to take it.” 

For mentoring to be meaningful, it should be approached with some rigor, planning and role definition. While some aspects of a mentoring relationship develop naturally, the relationship must have a defined goal to be meaningful. Here are four tips for making your mentoring relationship a meaningful one:   

  1. Define Purpose and Parameters. At the very first meeting, after getting to know each other, define the purpose of the relationship. While this may seem a bit forced, having a clear objective benefits both the mentor and the mentee. Possible objectives include networking, determining career options, identifying skill gaps (and how to fill them) and coaching on specific skills. Then, determine how often you will meet, how the mentee would like to receive feedback, and how the relationship can benefit both parties.  
  2. Create an Action PlanCreating an action plan is critical in achieving a meaningful mentoring relationship. For example, forming a list of people and professional development opportunities to broaden one’s professional network. If plotting a career path or change, an action plan could mean identifying assessments, informational interviews and shadowing opportunitiesIf looking to fill skills gaps, it could mean determining how formal learning, projects and outside forums can help. Having an action plan creates accountability and gives you and your mentee something to follow up on.  
  3. Weave in Stories, but Not Too ManyAs a mentor, it is always tempting to share life experiences and lessons learned. While sharing stories is an important way for the mentee to relate to and learn from youtry not to dominate the conversation. Share stories to help crystallize a point and share actionable advice. After telling a story, ask your mentee what he or she learned and how they can apply it.  
  4. Debrief and Conclude. Much like a project, debriefing and formally closing the relationship helps solidify what was achieved and what may still need to be done. I have heard from many mentees and mentors that they just stopped meeting, as calendars got busy and the relationship simply faded away. Openly discussing when the relationship should come to aend, and then having a meeting to conclude the relationship, brings closure and helps each party identify what they can do differently in future mentoring relationships.  

Mentoring is not an exact science. It is a human relationship that can benefit from having structure to ensure both parties get what they need from the connection. Through personal guidance, meaningful mentoring can help mentees learn more about an organization, career path and, even, themselves.