The mentor-mentee dynamic

How to make the most of your mentoring relationship

A critical part of becoming a leader is learning from others — especially engineering professionals who have climbed the corporate ladder and subsequently struck out on their own. Hence the concept of mentoring.

When it comes to mentoring, many are called but few serve adequately. The word “mentor” is overused due to our desire to form unique and personal relationships with others.

The very origin of the word “mentor” is in the name, Mentor: When Odysseus was about to leave on his journey to fight in the Trojan War, he asked his good friend, Mentor, to be guardian and role model for his son, Telemachus. Guardian and role model: Mentor was responsible for shepherding Telemachus’s development and modeling behaviors for the son to follow.

In the intervening centuries, that simple charge has not substantially changed.

Mentorship remains a very personal relationship in which both people glean something from the relationship. While at MIT I have had several mentors, it wasn’t until I began the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program that I truly understood how to develop, sustain and strengthen these vital relationships.

I met my mentor at the end of an Industry Advisory Board meeting, where he introduced himself as a director at IDEO. Since I am interested in product design, I approached him and asked him about his work. The conversation moved from talking about internships to retrofitting his home to traveling in France.

Throughout our mentoring relationship, the frequency of our contact has varied. My mentor leads an extraordinarily busy life: After leaving IDEO, he started his own consulting practice; I often get e-mails from him from various exotic locations as he traverses the globe advancing his consulting practice.

My mentor is genuinely interested in my interests: From where I traveled when I went to France to the piece I’m learning on the guitar. Despite his busy schedule, he never hesitates to enlighten me on topics related to engineering and leadership. Over lunch at the Asgard, he helped me through one of the toughest decisions of my time as an undergraduate: Choosing what I am going to do next year.

But our relationship isn’t just one-way: Both of us have benefited. I seek out my mentor for guidance when I am facing difficult decisions lying between my undergraduate education and the real world. I value his experience and his guidance, and my mentor gets to stay connected to the MIT community and help guide students through the same decisions he made as a young adult. He considers it an honor that I trust him and seek his professional and personal guidance.

As we all know, we live in a bit of a bubble at MIT: To MIT students, every decision seems like a choice between success and failure. Having a mentor — a successful, experienced engineering leader — helps with visioning and intention. Mentors have helped me stay calm and put things in perspective because they’ve done this before. They help me realize that the ”small stuff” is worth sweating (but not agonizing) over: The details will work themselves out and the bigger decisions aren’t worth getting bent out of shape about.

Most of the mentors to whom we look up have taken circuitous routes to get where they are now, and they’ve learned a lot along the way. I have learned from my mentor to take advantage of every single experience and to always keep in mind a few long-term goals.

My friend and fellow GEL classmate, Nora, has had a similarly rewarding experience with her mentor. She has met with him at least once a month for about a year. Her mentor has played a major role in the electronics sector for the past two decades, so he can share with her insights about the industry she wouldn’t normally find out until much later on. Among other things, they have covered the effects of encouraging better team dynamics and the process and consequences of making hard career decisions.

By taking the initiative to contact a mentor and making the effort to stay in touch with him or her, Nora and I have found that our talks clarify our own goals and aspirations. In doing so, in addition to leveraging our mentors’ experience, we are able to chart an effective course to reach our own calling in life, something that is challenging for anyone who will soon graduate from college.

This being said, engineering leadership programs aren’t the only place you can find mentors. You can create meaningful connections with those in your UROP, class, sports team, or internship. But to have a meaningful mentor-mentee relationships, you should keep a few things in mind.

First, be on the lookout for a mentor. Find someone with whom you really connect: Where your personalities and schedules, not just your academic and professional interests, are a good match.

You also need to be talkative and open. You cannot have a mentor if you are unwilling to share yourself, but remember that people generally like to talk about themselves and common interests. Again, the conversation and relationship should go both ways.

Remember also to be persistent. Once you’ve made the connection, don’t get discouraged if it’s difficult to schedule a meeting. Mentors are often extremely busy people, and sometimes they need a little extra reminder.

Finally, be confident. Chances are your mentor once had a mentor of his/her own, and gained a lot from the experience. They’re often happy to give back and help a student who was once in their shoes. In 20 years, who knows what students we might be mentoring?

Mentoring offers an excellent opportunity for the mentor and mentee to share their life experiences in a meaningful way. Vital to the success of aspiring engineering leaders, mentoring relationships allow aspiring leaders to tap their mentors’ knowledge and experience to take the best course of action. As we prepare for our next year, whether it is at MIT or beyond, let us seek out mentors to help us clarify our vision and intention in life, and our plans to attain it. By being open, respectful, persistent, and confident, we will succeed in forming good mentoring relationships.

This article is the second in a four-part series written by students in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program. Ariadne Smith is a senior in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Nora Micheva, a senior in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, contributed to this article.