How to Give Back to Your Mentor

By Joshua Bowen and Chaveso Cook, Harvard Business Review

During a recent phone call, a long-distance mentee asked one of us a familiar question: “Josh, how do I make our relationship more reciprocal? I feel like you’ve helped so much with my career, but I have nothing to offer in return.” We’ve found, among our many mentees, this is a common concern.

Our organization, Military Mentors — a nonprofit that elevates, educates, and facilitates mentoring for the military and beyond — defines mentorship as a reciprocal, yet asymmetric relationship. Mentors, who tend to be busy already, choose to give their time, attention, and resources to develop more junior members within their spheres of influence. But how can mentees with fewer resources make the experience beneficial for their mentors as well? To be sustainable, the relationship needs to be positive for both people.

Through our work, we’ve discovered that there are three simple ways that mentees can reciprocate: by keeping their mentor informed through regular updates, by expressing gratitude, and by giving feedback. Here’s why each of these efforts works.

1) Keeping your mentor informed.

Your mentor is already invested in the relationship. They have elected to give you their time, attention, and resources. Even so, most mentors are not always aware of your goals, the decisions you may be struggling with to reach them, and how those goals are progressing or changing over time. This is especially true for long-distance mentorships, or for people who meet less regularly.

You can give back to your mentor by keeping them up to date on these things. Don’t just do this when you meet or chat virtually. Make an intentional effort to reach out to them regularly — once a month, a quarter, or whenever you achieve a big goal — to tell them what’s going on in your life and career. It doesn’t have to be intrusive. You can do it quickly via email or text. Mentors enjoy being a part of your development. When you excel, they feel rewarded. Simply delivering this message is a way to give back to them.

Moreover, when you seek advice and your mentor offers it, you have an obligation to keep them informed on whether you took the advice, what decision you eventually made, and what the outcome was. If you didn’t take their advice, explain why and the consequences of that decision, both the good and the bad. Do this, not only out of respect for your mentor, but also to create an opportunity for them to learn from your experience, your analysis, and your results.

Studies show that knowledge sharing is one of the most important aspects of mentoring. As such, you can also keep your mentor informed by sending them articles or other resources that are relevant to your relationship, shared interests, or recent conversations.

2) Expressing gratitude.

You may feel infinitely grateful for your mentor, but they won’t understand their impact if you don’t share your feelings. As a mentee, you should clearly and regularly express gratitude to your mentor. Studies find that simple expressions of gratitude have powerful and long-lasting effects on those who receive them (and give them). Gratitude increases prosocial behavior by helping people feel valued. Those who receive it are more likely to help others later on. In fact, mentors who receive gratitude are not only encouraged to remain committed to the current relationship, but also to connect with and invest in other mentees, according to research by the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring.

One thoughtful way to show your mentor gratitude is through a handwritten note. Its novelty demonstrates personal care and investment back toward the receiver. However, gratitude cannot be vague. Like feedback, it should capture the specifics: the situation that you were struggling with, the advice or benefits your mentor provided, and the resulting impacts on you and your life or career.

Another easy way to share your thanks is to give, literally. Small gifts — nothing grand, but little things that connect to the unique aspects of your mentorship — are tangible ways to capture and celebrate each other. For instance, you might give your mentor a book that discusses topics you’re both passionate about, or office trinkets that you know they’ll find useful. Most people enjoy having physical reminders of their important relationships somewhere in their office. These objects are like artifacts, reminding us of what’s meaningful on busy days or in challenging seasons.

3) Giving feedback.

Your mentor may be your senior, but they’re still learning and growing — just like you. Thoughtful feedback is one of the most valuable things you can give to them (not just once, but habitually).

This can be an intimidating task, and one that requires work from your mentor as well. Your mentor needs to be willing to make space for your feedback by normalizing its two-way flow. You can help them establish these parameters early in the relationship by providing honest and succinct feedback in a follow-up email after a meeting or call. In your message, summarize your discussion, highlight the main ideas you extrapolated from it, and express gratitude. Once candor is established, ask, “In the future, would it be helpful for me to include some details about what was most and least helpful about our conversation? I was wondering if it would be valuable to create a two-way street for feedback, and if that’s something you’re comfortable with.”

If their response is positive, begin including short comments about the most and least helpful aspects of your discussions in your follow-up emails. As a standard practice, this helps your mentor become more aware of how their approach is landing. Equipped with that knowledge, they can make necessary adjustments to best help you and others in the future.

Given all the research, there should be little doubt about how much mentoring matters. This goes for both mentors and yourself. In The Pursuit of Excellence, Ryan Hawk shares a personal story of being a mentee to a West Point and Harvard MBA graduate named Lee Rivas:

When the time came for each call, I showed up prepared with specific questions and I took detailed notes. After the calls ended, I typed up my notes, and created an action plan based on the new learnings from Lee. I would write, “Lee – Thank you for your investment in me. Here is what I learned… Here is what I intend to do… And by the way, feel free to forward this email to anyone else you mentor. Hopefully, it could help others as well.”

This anecdote touches on all three ways you can make your mentoring relationships reciprocal. It incorporates an update, gratitude, and feedback from the mentee. The example illuminates how these don’t have to be major or complex acts either.

An important variable to a successful and a sustainable mentorship is the two-way nature where both members benefit. We encourage you to consider the ways you’re contributing to the reciprocity of your relationship and the ways in which you can give back to your mentors.

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