When the mentee dumps her mentor

From the Archives

Originally published March 19, 2016

A funny thing happened on my way to bed the other night: I got dumped as a mentor. If you’re a mentor – and I recommend that everyone mentor someone in his or her lifetime – how do you know when it’s time to stop mentoring? Perhaps you’ve taught all you can teach a person. Maybe you’ve run out of things to say. Worse, could it be that your mentee has stopped listening? And then there’s the other signal: getting dumped by your mentee. Here’s what to do when that happens.

Friday night, as I made my way to bed, I got a text message from someone I’ve come to see as a protégé. Since first learning of a common interest we share, I’ve made myself available to answer questions and to understand her goals in the field. I don’t view her as competition; rather, she provides a wonderful opportunity for me to keep sharp and to strive for lifelong learning. Her text message was to the point: she doesn’t want to be mentored by me anymore. At least she was polite about it. (Better etiquette would be a phone call or in-person conversation. Still, given her inhibitions, I’m allowing the text message.)

My reply was also short: “Disappointing. I understand, though. Please always know I’m here as a resource in future.” As much as I wanted to address her reasons for severing our relationship, I know that there are far better uses of my time and hers if I truly care about her personal and professional development.

  1. Be sure to keep the door open for future consultation or coaching. To shut her out simply because she’s choosing to go another direction with her development would be counter-intuitive. As a mentor, I want to see her grow, and I can lead that effort by example. Burning the bridge is simply unprofessional and unproductive. It sets a poor example. Instead, let her know that you’ve been a resource and when she’s ready to benefit from you again, you’ll make yourself available.
  2. Point her in some positive directions. It’s not always easy mentoring across genders, and you’ll do well to consider that as a possible motive for a mentee breaking off the relationship. Without mounting too much pressure, try to steer your mentee toward someone else who might make her learning process a little more comfortable for her. I’m saying this in spite of my staunch belief that living outside the comfort zone is the path to growth. At the same time, it’s meaningful to consider that people reach their level of comfort with discomfort at different stages in their lives and careers. Help move your mentee’s career along by pointing her toward someone who will keep her motivated and productive.
  3. Encourage your mentee to continue her journey. After letting me down softly, she told me, “I’m bummed because I know I would’ve learned a lot.” I told her not to worry and encouraged her to keep her spirits up. Making a big deal about shutting down our work together would only intensify any concerns she might have and send a message that I don’t know how or when to move on from a project or relationship. Consider the number of young people I’ve mentored over the years. If I were still actively mentoring them, I’d spend 20 hours a day responding to text messages and e-mails, talking on the phone, and sitting through meetings.
  4. Keep your mind and heart open. I recently wrote about some powerful women who have influenced me personally and professionally through the years. Regardless of their familiar relationship to me, they’re all sort of mentors. Some are mentors by authority – parents, teachers, bosses – while others are mentors by example and shared professional interests. Some of them have died, and others have since moved on to other ports of call. Of the ones still in the land of the living, I’m sure most of them are now mentoring others who need them. Like imaginary friends – Pete’s Dragon, Puff the Magic Dragon (I know a lot of dragon stories) – mentors move on to “help someone else in need”. Letting go of one mentee leaves you a little more available for the next person who wants and needs your help. Stay open to that possibility.
  5. Move on. I do few things very well. Identifying and exploring talent is one of them. Since childhood, I’ve had a knack for knowing who would be best in particular roles. I was often consulted for casting of school plays, and when large class projects came up, I was asked to help assign duties. As I moved into the work realm, this gift continued to play a valuable role in my professional growth. In work, business, and social settings, seeing and tapping into great potential has been my strength. To let a mentee go, then, could feel like a failure. It’s not. In fact, letting people flap their own wings and learn to fly, eventually leaving the coaching nest, is the whole point of mentoring. When they fly, it’s up to you, as a mentor, to let them do so and to be a little proud of their maturity in taking the plunge on their own.

I’m hardly pleased be dropped as a mentor. In fact, for a few seconds after receiving that text Friday night, thoughts like “She’s texting me this? Has she learned nothing from me? Where’s my phone call?” and “But there’s so much more to teach and learn.” crossed my mind. Pretty quickly, though, my resolve kicked in and after expressing, in a single word with no explanation, my disappointment, I let her know that the resources available to her before will still be available to her. It’s now up to her to choose whether she will once again take advantage of said resources.

Bottom line: I’m in the market for a new mentee. (It’s no coincidence that on Wednesday night, I had just declared that I felt it was time to start mentoring someone new. Law of attraction: I asked for it, and two days later, I got it.) Help keep this conversation going, whether you’ve been on either end of a mentoring relationship. How have your mentor-mentee ties been severed and how did you and the other person(s) respond? Share in comments.