Building Mentoring Relationships: An Introduction

Mentorship and relationship building require attention, purpose, time, energy and integrity.  

Regardless of whether you are entering the profession, shifting your responsibilities, or settling into an established professional role in your organization, mentoring relationships can be one of the most significant components of any professional journey.

Those who participate in the most meaningful relationships move between the role of mentor and mentee with fluidity. This fluid engagement benefits both parties by energizing and creating an expectation of reciprocal learning. Realizing fluidity as a lived value requires all to embrace responsibility for identifying relationships, creating shared expectations, communicating, and embracing inclusion. 

The following offers an examination of these elements and exercises to promote trust, self-reflection and critical thinking.  The following sections explore key elements in identifying, creating and communicating within mentoring relationships.

Identifying Mentoring Relationships

The most effective mentoring relationships have mutual benefits and are based on mutual respect. It is a partnership, with both partners being open to learning and teaching. Taking the time upfront to reflect and understand yourself and your connections with other colleagues is critical and foundational.  

What are you looking for in a mentoring relationship? What are your strengths and gaps in your current network? What do you want your network to look like in a year? How will you build a map for your future? 

Asking yourself these types of questions that will launch your journey and help you to identify the most relevant mentoring relationship.  

For example, if you are new to the profession, you might look for a colleague with whom to explore ideas. Or if you are a mid-career professional, you might look for a colleague to help you develop leadership skills at the next level. If you are a more experienced professional, you might look to help colleagues with  scholarly communication and research to deepen your impact. 

Reflections are essential in identifying relevant mentoring relationships. Reflection can make the difference between a good and exceptional mentoring experience.

Featured Activities

This activity by the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity will provide a way to visualize or map your mentoring relationships. Visualizing your network is extremely important in order to reflect on needs for the future.

This activity will help you think about the team and broaden your understanding of mentorship beyond the one-to-one scenario. 

Creating Shared Expectations

Once you have identified a mentoring relationship, you will want to have a conversation to create shared expectations. These expectations will help clarify roles and responsibilities.  

A mentor does not do the work for the mentee, rather assists in reflection, identification of gaps and possible paths forward.  A mentee does more than receive information and complete the work no one else wants to do.  Instead, the mentor and mentee co-create culture and live a shared philosophy.  

It is only when these expectations are expressed that the work can begin in a positive and forward direction.  For example, creating shared expectations around confidentiality will help set a respectful space where ideas and challenges are honestly and freely explored. 

The benefits of these conversations will result in a recognition of limitations and advantages this mentoring relationship will have for all involved.

Featured Activities

This activity will help you articulate, practice and live the norms of behaviors that you co-create together. It should be done during one of your first meetings to co create norms of behavior expected by both parties in the relationship. 

Creating a shared space to track progress and achievements can help direct the mentoring relationship and project toward shared goals. This activity will give the mentor and mentee a space to track progress, set new goals, and share insight and resources in a centralized spot.

Communicating with Each Other

Being able to effectively communicate is a vital skill we use to share ideas and exchange information. It is woven throughout verbal, non-verbal, written and visual activities, in both formal and informal ways.  

Communication is a two way process. 

The mentoring relationship gives both the mentee and mentor the opportunity to deepen and further practice their communication capabilities.  

There is always something new to learn and understand about communication.

Featured Activities

This activity will promote thinking about how we communicate and be a foundational exercise that can be referred to throughout the mentoring relationship. It will encourage reflection and planning and communication moving forward in a project.

Taking the time to reflect on your listening can help you build rapport and respect, promote understanding, invite various viewpoints into a discussion and avoid misunderstanding. It can also help you understand your strengths and where you could design specific practices to improve your communication

This activity will promote learning about each other and develop curiosity about different points of view. Sharing is a powerful way to create space for engagement and rapport. Listening to learn from one another, asking questions, being curious and being present will have long-term impact on the quality of your mentoring relationship.

Embracing Inclusion

Mentoring relationships that are done well enable a sense of belonging and inclusion. We all want to know that we matter; it enables us to bring our best selves to our work. Genuine listening and empathy are key to embracing inclusion as a habit, instead of as an afterthought. Practicing respect and being curious about each other’s lived experiences, regardless of whether they match one’s own experience, elevates understanding and facilitates creative problem solving. Taking time to learn about each other through active listening and genuine discourse will surface different values, perspectives and interests. Through these explorations, advantages and bias can proactively be surfaced as a way to deepen trust. Embracing inclusion will open doors not otherwise imagined and be a catalyst for positive culture beyond the life of the mentoring relationship. It means active listening, being receptive and encouraging to different points of view. Learning to embrace inclusion is a skill in which everyone can develop.

Featured Activities

Through strategic conversations with others, you can learn with and from one another, and build community. This exercise will promote respect and being curious about each other’s lived experiences, regardless of whether they match one’s own experience, elevate understanding and facilitate creative problem solving.

This activity will help you identify key moments throughout your professional journey and mark important events and reasons for their importance along the way. By creating a professional journey map, you are able to capture and organize significant milestones that led you to the professional you are today.

There are a number of identity wheel exercises available to encourage reflection, build  community and further engage with each other. This activity can be used to help the mentoring pair learn more about one another or find common ground which promotes inclusion, empathy and community.

Building in time for mindfulness and gratitude will promote a culture of encouragement and growth. Expressions of gratitude contribute to feelings of inclusion as part of a team and motivation to finish projects. This activity will help you connect with each other, engage more deeply, and improve the quality of your work. 

Know Your Risks, Aim for the Rewards and Learn Together

Mentoring comes from many directions, including peer interactions, (in)formal mentoring activities, inspiration and iteration, and broadening of perspectives. In the work of this IMLS grant, professional growth is increasingly present for principal investigators, librarian faculty, and students. There is a curiosity through all levels of the grant ranging from engagement with outside presenters, interactions at monthly meetings and one-on-one conversations. There is a commitment to learning in words and actions. Being genuine is contagious and invites communities of practice to flourish. It welcomes inclusivity and makes accessible the expertise around you.  Learning how to apply curiosity is a skill and one honed by asking questions in order to fill in and further build knowledge.

Each individual is a leader, with talents and gifts necessary to realize the team’s goals and aspirations. We want to create a community of practice where everyone contributes to the work of the project. The first meeting of the semester focused on network building and the importance of networks to connect with opportunities. The network mapping exercise is an insightful (and repeatable) way to be intentional. Be direct and ask for help. More often than not, the answer is yes or a redirect to another opportunity. Likewise, exploring venues to present and/or publish research extends the conversation about the impact and value of libraries; and creates a valuable opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with professionals from various settings, seek advice and gain new and diverse perspectives and engage with professional practices.

Learning how to give and receive feedback is key to being a mentor and a mentee. Throughout this grant’s various activities, there has been an increased investment in developing and providing constructive feedback. Successful leaders are reflective and commit to their own learning as well as those around them. The goal of feedback is to minimize the gap between how others see themselves and how they want to be seen. This means listening and truly hearing, and then being open to experimenting with new paths forward. Practice, adjust, observe, engage, be mindful and repeat. Being comfortable with approaching feedback helps remove barriers, accelerate positive outcomes and take action for relevant impact.  

Identifying, creating and communicating within mentoring relationships promotes trust, self-reflection and critical thinking. The mentoring relationship is a significant component of the success and impact of any project.