Beyond a Cup of Coffee: Six Steps to Building a Lasting Mentoring Relationship

June 06, 2016

SOM Professor Stacy Blake-Beard shares six steps for participating in mentoring relationships.

Beyond a Cup of CoffeeThis article was written by Emily Buehrens and first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Management Magazine.

A mentor is a valuable resource for young professionals and people at all stages of their career that can help challenge, inform, and transform personal and professional development. A mentor can “help you understand and own your power; help you analyze and be aware of your strengths; and help you clarify and be sure of your vision and to use your voice in that regard,” says Stacy Blake-Beard, professor of management at Simmons College School of Management and mentoring scholar. “A mentor can help you to be less afraid.” 

Passionate about mentoring, Blake-Beard has spent her career observing, analyzing, and sharing the benefits of mentoring—both as a mentor/protege as well as a researcher/consultant. Mentoring, she says, is a dynamic, empowering and mutually beneficial relationship. It offers mentees the opportunity to gain insight into character, practical experience, and personal growth if they are willing to be open to all that mentors have to offer. It is not just having coffee with someone and asking his or her advice. A mentoring relationship is something that develops over time as a result of a series of focused conversations.

Finding a mentor can be intimidating and a bit daunting, says Blake-Beard. “When you ask someone to be a mentor, you are asking for his or her time, energy and social capital,” she says. “A mentor has to decide if she or he has that to give.” A mentee should be respectful of the mentor’s time and be thoughtful in her ask. If you approach a potential mentor with respect for what it is that she or he offers, and if you can demonstrate what you bring to the relationship, you are more likely to get a positive result. 

Blake-Beard offers a practical six-steps approach on how to identify, engage, and successfully participate in a mentoring relationship. If you do this, she says, you are more likely to build a lasting, honest, and helpful relationship.

  1. Self-reflection: Having a good understanding of your goals, where you want to be in your career or life, and what it is you want to achieve, is an important first step in the mentoring process. A mentor can’t help you if you don’t know what it is that you want for yourself. Self-reflect on what it is that you are good at and what it is that you bring to the table that will make the mentoring relationship meaningful to you both.

  2. Put your network into action: Some say that there are six degrees of separation between introductions of individuals, but Blake-Beard believes it can be fewer than that. “If you really leverage your network,” she says, “you can get connected to almost anybody.” Do a survey of the landscape and give good thought to who can help you reach the goals and needs that you identified. Be specific to best leverage the potential mentor’s areas of expertise and experience. For example, if you are interested in developing your finance skills, establish a relationship with a professional within that field. If you are interested in working on your public speaking skills, you might have more options of mentors to work with as this is a skill used in many sectors.

  3. Get on their calendar: Once you have identified who it is you hope to tap for guidance and support in a mentoring relationship, reach out and find time for a conversation. Be flexible and creative in arranging the meeting. Meet for lunch, arrange for an informational interview, or even go for a walk. According to Blake-Beard, try to make it as easy as possible for the other person to say “yes.” Then set the date. Having a first meeting in person is preferable to a phone call or email. In-person meetings are often conducted for important conversations. It allows both parties to read tone and body language, establish rapport with one another, and share “small talk,” which will help to build a relationship.

  4. Use inquiry & listen: Ask your question and then listen. When going into these types of meetings, Blake-Beard says she has a short agenda. She prepares one or two questions, shares her goal(s) and asks for feedback. “People are happy to talk,” advises Blake-Beard. “They are appreciative of the opportunity to share and give back.” But the key is to be prepared. Be clear on your goals. Go back to your self-reflection work and examine what it is you are hoping to get out of the meeting. Ask a couple of questions, and then let the mentor share her or his experiences with you. 

  5. Giving thanks: After the meeting, it is important to communicate your gratitude to this person for taking time out of her or his busy schedule and for sharing her or his insights with you. “Real thank you cards are an art,” says Blake-Beard about her preferred method of response. Whatever the format—a written note or an email—sending a thank you note showing thoughtfulness and care is important to building a successful and long-term mentoring relationship.

  6. Follow-up: It is important to share with your mentor what you have learned, how you are going to act on the advice she or her provided and how it added value in your life. In her thank you notes, Blake-Beard says, “thank you so much for taking time to share your perspective on ‘x,’ I am going to use what you shared to help with my goal of ‘y.’ Is it okay to follow-up with you in a couple of months to share with you how I used this information?” And then, do follow-up.

Once you have done this a couple of times, then it becomes a cycle. Investing the time early on to nurture and develop the relationship will demonstrate to your mentor the value and positive impact the mentoring is having on your life and achieving your goals. When mentoring works well, then mentors become part of your network. You will find that this person will make time for you no matter where life takes you.

Stacy Blake-BeardStacy Blake-Beard, PhD, focuses on the challenges and opportunities offered by mentoring relationships, with an emphasis on how these relationships may be changing as a result of increasing workforce diversity. She is interested in the issues women face as they develop mentoring relationships. She studies the dynamics of formal mentoring programs in both corporate and educational settings.