Maximizing Mentor Relationships

So you have found a good mentor, someone you really look up to, and now you are ready to learn from them.
Awesome! Great! How are you going to do that? I can remember some of my early mentoring sessions where I just kind of showed up and stared, waiting for their greatness to be  telepathically imbued from their cranium to mine. I probably should have thought that out more. I can distinctly remember meeting with a mentor, Dr. Ed Robinson, who took me to a Royals game that was dominated by the awkward tension that I unintentionally created simply because I didn’t know what to do. Here I was with a certifiable STUD in ministry, someone who had accomplished a lot in his life, who was willing to give me his time, and I had no idea what I was doing.

I was afraid to ask some questions because I didn’t want to look stupid. I pretended to know more than I did because I didn’t want to look stupid. In fact I secretly dreaded ever going to the game with him, because I didn’t want to look stupid. Notice a pattern here? I had no idea how to be in a mentor relationship, how to honor their time, or how to even be myself with them. My immaturity showed no matter how hard I tried to hide it, and while I enjoyed the game, and did finally learn a great deal from Ed, I wasted a lot of time getting there.

I would love to let you learn from my mistakes, and good for you because I have made a lot of them! Through the years I have found a few practices that are absolutely essential to operating in a mentor relationship.

1. Plan.

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

-Stephen Covey

There is a modern love affair going on with go-with-the-flow-organic-style relationships where we just do life together and learn from what happens. While there is certainly a place for this what I have learned is that if I make plans for something to happen, it typically happens. If I fail to make plans, those things either never happen or they happen much later than they could have.

The high capacity leaders I want to learn from are very busy people, and while they are often willing to give me time, I honor them best by scheduling with them in advance. We don’t just walk into a lawyer or doctor’s office when we want to and expect them to spend as much time as we like. No, we schedule time so that we fit into their schedule instead of trying to cram them into ours. If possible set up a recurring time to meet with your mentor. I have a regular weekly leadership meeting where I meet with LifePoint staff to discuss books and other issues as I help develop them as leaders within our church. One of my main mentors, Dwayne Deskins, travels the continent on a regular basis making a standing meeting difficult to plan, so instead, I text him and ask for open time that he may have that is convenient for him. In either case it is important for the mentee to take the initiative to serve the mentor by making that time a priority and scheduling it in advance.

2. Prepare.

I was blessed to have the chance to play college football for the MidAmerica Nazarene University Pioneers. It wasn’t a huge D1 school with a multimillion dollar budget, but Mike Redwine was dedicated to putting the best team on the field and winning football games. Part of that preparation was on the practice field, another part was in the weight room, and still yet was the time we put in watching game film. Champions aren’t made on accident, they are developed through diligent preparation.

“You show your value when you value your leader’s time. The best way to do that is to spend ten minutes preparing for every minute you expect to meet.”

-John Maxwell

Take time to prepare by writing down questions and scenarios that your mentor can add their perspective to. I like to make lists of the things I want to talk about and then I prioritize the list to ensure that the important things are covered. As a therapist I found that often the most important discoveries occurred in the last five minutes of the session. I think the reason for that is because the client would often come in knowing that that last question needed discussion, but they used other useful and helpful questions to avoid the big issues because of the anxiety that surrounded them. If we make a habit of avoiding the tough topics we also make a habit of leaving those issues unresolved and our progress is perpetually impeded.

Be sure that your questions are good questions. They have to make sense, lead to the answer you are looking for, and can be asked rather concisely. Be sure to gather the necessary background info they may need, but don’t get overly detailed. This isn’t a therapy session, this is your mentor, not necessarily your counselor. Although those lines can get blurred, it is important to honor that distinction.

3. Present.

Present yourself openly. If you already know everything you don’t need a mentor, you should probably be mentoring everyone else. You selected this person because they have specific experience or accomplishment that you aspire to, so let them teach you. Don’t worry about looking stupid. I finally learned that the only dumb questions are the ones that go unasked. Be open to what they have to say, especially if it is constructive criticism. You need your mentor to speak into your life and for that to happen, you must be open.

Present your agenda. You took the time to plan the meeting, carefully craft your questions, and concisely explain your scenarios. Now share them. Stick to your game plan, with one exception. If your mentor says something like, “There is something I would like to talk to you about.” If you are driven like me it is entirely possible for you to drive right past an issue that you have been overlooking for years that is hindering your growth. Mentors are often really good at seeing these things, and when they call us out on them, we need to take time to listen.

Be present. To make the most out of any meeting, you have to actually be there. Not only in attendance, but in presence as well. Take time to practice active listening skills. While they are talking, listen rather than try to formulate your response. Take time to clarify by asking questions and to repeat back to them what they shared in your own words. Take notes, write down and order the books, blogs, and podcasts they recommend. And again, stay focused on the time that you have. A mentor’s time is a gift, so honor it! And when the allotted time is up, respect them by scheduling your next meeting and ending the current one on a positive note.

4. Practice

This should go without saying, but if you have taken the time to do the three things above, you should try to implement what you have learned in your life. Those changes may not take instantly, and they shouldn’t, it takes time to for the brain to form new neural pathways and for behavior to change, so stick with it.

22 But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23 For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. 25 But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.

-James 1:22-25 NLT

He isn’t talking about making sure the wind didn’t mess up your coif, he is talking about completely forgetting the arrangement of your face. If you are struggling with that kind of a memory issue, you may need more help than this article can give you. James paints a plain picture of what it looks like when we walk away from truth unchanged. While your mentor’s words won’t carry the same weight of scripture, they should carry enough wight for you to implement the wisdom they were kind enough to share. As you are trying these new practices out, take note of the challenges those changes have brought about and inject those things in the next conversation. Chances are they have some wisdom about those issues too, or at least would be willing to walk with you through that next part of the journey.

I am extremely thankful for all of my mentors, and for the patience they have displayed as I am continuing to learn how to lead. These are just some of the lessons I have learned, but I would love to hear from you if you have anything to add. If you found this helpful at all, I would be honored if you would share it with your friends!

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6 Thoughts to “Maximizing Mentor Relationships”

  1. Ronnie Jordan

    I love this post. I am a man who spent time growing up in Chicago and was part of a lot of youth programs in the 60’s where that is exactly what was going on. The staff was actually mentoring us. And it is wonderful that you took out your time to try to prepare people to do this type of thing. I noticed you had scripture and that is exactly what being spiritually based proposes. To not think of yourself but of others. Again God Bless You for what you are doing.

    1. Kelly

      Thanks Ronnie! Mentors changed my life, but I know that not everyone “gets it” when it comes to why we need them. Do you still keep in contact with any of the mentors from your youth? Some of mine have passed on, but I am still able to learn from many of them. Thanks for your kind words!

  2. Thanks Kelly for a great post with your very personal story which is helpful and inspiring. Would you make a distinction between great coaches and great mentors? What was your experience? Thanks again for sharing these thoughts.
    Positively Keith

    1. Kelly

      Coaches can be mentors, and mentors can be coaches but those lines don’t always cross. I think the distinction comes in what the goal of the relationship is. When I think of coaches I think of people who work with you to achieve success in a specific venture, where as a mentor is there to help you succeed in life overall. Great question!

  3. Wonderful article, Kelly. I’ve been very fortunate to have many great mentors in my life, some of which I didn’t recognize as such at the time, and didn’t value their time through preparation as much as I could have. I don’t make that mistake anymore. I owe so much of my development to great mentors and am pleased to now find myself in a position of being able to be a mentor to others as well. Giving back is even better.

    Keep up your great work!

    1. Kelly

      Thanks Kevin. I’ve found being a mentor is a powerfully rewarding role to play as well. It is an honor to be able to help people grow, and I have found that it often helps me more that I help them. Thanks for your comment!

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