• Mel Butcher

Help! My Mentor Isn't the Right Fit!

Simpsons meme featuring Ralph Wiggum rolling down a hill away from Lisa, captioned "When you don't know how to end a conversation..."

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) is piloting a new mentorship program and I got to be the keynote speaker for their kickoff... WOOHOO!!!

This means we did a little survey and collected some lingering questions. Here's one:

Some mentors are simply not the right fit for certain people. How do we gracefully break off the mentorship relationship?

OK, let's have a think on this together...

Whether you are initiating a mentorship relationship on your own, or going into a formal program, the mentoring relationship should start by having a time limit, such as both parties agreeing to work together for, say, 6 months.

The time limit is important for precisely this reason - it gives both parties a known exit date.

And if the situation isn't actively harmful, just slightly uncomfortable or awkward, it might be worthwhile for you to simply maintain your commitment and change your posture:

How might you add value to the mentor's career in the remaining time period?

How might you use thoughtful questions to draw out some important life or career lessons from them?

After all, no matter who the other person is, there's always something we can learn from them.

If nothing else, this could be an opportunity to learn to more effectively interact with someone different from ourselves, a skill that never loses its usefulness in the working world.

Now let's suppose you have a future out date, but it's too far away. If this is a program, I seriously hope the organizers considered this situation and gave all participants, whether mentor or mentee, a chance to get reassigned if the match isn't working... (and if you're entering such a program, this is something you should definitely inquire about before it starts)... but let's say none of that happened. What now?

It's important to acknowledge that any more seasoned professional who opens up their time to you should be greatly appreciated, even if they aren't your perfect match. You have to read the situation and the other person to know which action might be appropriate next.

This is one of those moments you have to choose to have a difficult, adult conversation.

On one end of the spectrum, you might take a side-stepping approach. For instance, you might decide to tell your mentor that you have had some responsibilities turn up professionally, personally that you weren't anticipating, and that you need to discontinue meeting to focus on those things.

Or you might choose to have a more direct conversation. You could decide at your next mentoring session to tell them, "I don't feel that this is working out for the goals I have in my career right now. I've enjoyed our time and sincerely appreciate your dedication to paying it forward to future generations, and I believe the best way for me to show respect to you and your time is by bringing our time together to a close."

Then there's another approach entirely. You could set the next meeting up with your mentor and go in with no preconceived ideas about them, your relationship, or the outcome. You could ask them probing questions: "How do you think this mentorship relationship is going? How would you rate our communication effectiveness? What would make our communication better? What do you think would make our mentoring relationships better? What do you think I could do to be a better mentee? Can you tell me about a time when you had an exceptional mentor? What stands out to you about them?" And so on.

As with any work interaction that involves people, it can be complicated. And you have to do what's best to respect your own and others' time, especially when you have specific goals you're working toward.


Thank you to the anonymous question asker! I hope you all will have a look at some of the other mentoring posts here on the blog at the Lead to Soar podcast. Until next time...

#Mentor #Mentorship #Mentoring #Protege

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