How to Be a Great Protege

As a Barnard College undergraduate planning a career in social work, Sandia Trent signed up with a mentoring program.

She began meeting once a week with her mentor, a social worker at a leading medical center, to talk about her career path. After graduation, Trent landed a job in digital marketing and quickly decided it was for her. Her mentor then guided her through the often rocky transition from student to employee. “At school, you control your world, but at work, you are expected to do what you boss wants, so I had to learn to negotiate that,” says Trent.

Twelve years later, they still meet regularly. “Over time, we’ve asked more about each other’s lives,” says Trent, now director of marketing at Ivy Exec. “She attended my wedding, and I get updates about her kids. But the relationship is primarily the same. It is still mentoring, with a side of friendship.”

Leaders from Bill Gates to Richard Branson have extolled the virtues of having a mentor, and research shows most senior executives have worked with a mentor. Most have more than one.

Finding a mentor, whether through a formal program or approaching someone yourself, might be the single most important thing you can do for your career. But like any relationship, it takes two to make it a success. Here’s how.

How to Be a Great Protégé

Be open. Most of us try to be professional and effective at work, and often that means keeping a lid on emotions or insecurities that might undermine us. But to get the most out of a mentor, you need to share what is really going on. You have to be willing to open up and view yourself honestly. “At times, you have to be vulnerable,” says Trent. “You are offering up your weaknesses, and talking about your mistakes. You don’t do that freely at work.”

Be flexible. Many people think you need to find a mentor in your own industry, but that is not necessarily the case. “When it comes to handling workplace issues, there are parallels on every career path, such as handling disappointments, learning how to best showcase yourself in a job or maintaining your personal integrity,” says Trent. Building a strong network within your industry, including former colleagues, that you can discuss industry trends and issues with is important, regardless, in fact, of whether you have a mentor at all.

Be patient. When dealing with workplace conflicts or new situations, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. You have to be willing to explore solutions, obstacles and limits. And you have to give the process—and your relationship—a chance to evolve. “Sometimes I didn’t want to hear what my mentor was saying at the time,” says Trent. “I sometimes didn’t agree at the time. But then a few weeks or months later I’d remember what she said, and accept it.” Mentoring isn’t a quick fix, it is a process.

Be curious. If you think getting a mentor is just a way to speed your career path, or even to confirm your own ideas about your work, you’re not making the most of the relationship. Beyond any industry-advice or encouragement a mentor might give you, a mentor can offer insights, strategies and techniques that you might not have thought about—or that might not be entirely comfortable for you. Ask questions and be interested in exploring new approaches and tactics your mentor suggests. A mentor’s greatest gift? Outside perspective.

Be respectful. Never forget, even if you have been working with a mentor for a long time, that your relationship is built on trust and respect. Your mentor is taking time to work with you, and though they benefit as well, do your part. Show up on time. Make the most of your time together by organizing your thoughts before your appointment. Take notes. Be grateful, and be sure to express your gratitude.


About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.