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How to Get the Most from Your Mentor

Know exactly what you want from your mentor, come prepared to conversations, and three more ways to make the most of this relationship.

By Susan Brenna

October 15, 2018

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Aimée Eubank Davis (G.N.O. ’95) is an expert in human capital. Five years ago, she founded Braven, a nonprofit that’s guiding first generation and under-represented college students to land strong first jobs straight out of college in Chicago, the Bay Area, and Newark. (So far, Braven Fellows are outpacing their peers by 30 percentage points on attaining strong post-grad opportunities.) Prior to that, she was Executive Vice President of People, Diversity and Community at Teach For America. She spent the majority of her 13 years in senior-level roles leading the staff to develop and diversify during a period of rapid growth.

Mentoring is a lighter-touch relationship than the kind of intensive coaching that Braven college Fellows experience, but it’s a relationship that Eubanks Davis values. “I have a fair number of people, where, I am a mentor to them. I’ve also worked myself into the lives of certain people who are mentors to me,” she told One Day. “Here’s what I’ve learned from being on both sides of the equation.”

The most impactful relationships are driven by mentees, not mentors.

“The core of the relationship should be that you genuinely have a reason to ask a person for her time, and you know what you’re looking for from a mentor.”

“I had a mentee who worked for me at TFA, and now she has a senior role at a prestigious foundation. She’s very proactive about saying, ‘I need your attention, and this is why. I’ve got this big decision to make.’”

“One of my biggest mentors at TFA was a board member who I still go to for advice. I set up quarterly meetings with her, and three or four days ahead, I tell her what I’m going to talk to her about. Another mentor is a very busy person, so I stack up my questions and have them ready when she has time. Some of my relationships are looser, but I think you get the most out of mentors when you can tell them what you want, and they can think about it.”

Don’t expect one mentor to be everything to you.

“I go to one mentor when I have to think through university partnerships and another when I have to think through the lens of a donor. I have three kids and we need to send them to college. There’s a person I went to and said, ‘Oh my goodness, can you sit me down and help me get my head around that behemoth of a financial challenge?’”

Don’t expect your mentor to be your mentor for life.

“My first mentor in New Orleans was Brenda Jones Benoit, who had been teaching for 20 years, and I had been teaching for zero. She gave me feedback all the time, and I started to get comfortable in a mentoring relationship where there was a natural proximity. There are people like Brenda who mentored me, and there’s still so much love and affection. But it’s OK for the mentoring to come to a conclusion because the reason you were in that relationship has evolved.”

It won’t all be praise and encouragement.

“I have a mentor who is sort of a work-ish mother to me, even though she’s never been my direct manager. She never shies away from telling me when she is disappointed in something my team produced. There are moments when things can be awkward because you are in a human relationship, but in those moments of tension, you’re going to stretch and grow.”

It’s not all identity based.

“There are moments when I want to talk to another black woman leading an organization, but I would do myself a disservice as a learner if I was only looking for advice from black women. As I think about my own mentors, they have been women, they have been men, they have been black, they have been white. One member of my board, whose outlook on politics can be different than mine, is a super-helpful thought partner on a part of our strategy that he knows a lot about professionally. If you’re only looking to people like you, you’re not going to get the best advice.”

Illustration by Elan Harris