There are countless fire service articles discussing how to successfully mentor others, the importance of mentorship in the fire service and how to build your department’s formal mentorship program, along with a thousand analogues. Most are written from the perspective of the mentor, and the rest are from the viewpoint of an outside party looking in on the relationship or program. Rarely, if ever, do we see guidance on this topic written from the vantage of the person being mentored. But a mentorship is a two-way street. Why aren’t we teaching our members how to be successful mentees?
As defined by Merriam-Webster, mentorship is influence, guidance, or direction given by a mentor, who is a trusted counselor, guide, tutor, or coach. While this definition is fairly straightforward, much has been made of the concept—focusing almost entirely on what is required of a mentor. But what obligations does the mentee have? What can the mentee do to forge a lasting relationship that will allow all stakeholders to reap the benefits?
In my opinion, this is where the fire service misses the mark. We emphasize the mentor’s contributions to the relationship and/or a program’s structure and process, yet we all but relieve the mentee of any responsibility. To overcome this paradigm flaw, we need to start teaching our members what it means to be a successful mentee and what obligations accompany the relationship.
Mentorships as Relationships
As a prospective mentee, you must have a sense of what you’re after. For example:
- What you hope to get out of a mentorship
- How much time you can dedicate to the relationship
- What you need from a mentor to help them be successful
- Any specific knowledge or input you’re looking for
- How you plan to communicate (e.g., email, phone calls, in person)
While this list isn’t exhaustive, it will help the mentee organize thoughts before approaching or connecting with a potential mentor. Doing so ahead of time will help clarify your goals and save everyone time.
We need to start teaching our members what it means to be a successful mentee and what obligations accompany the relationship.
The mentee’s next step is to seek a mentor or mentors who meet their goals. At times, these mentors may come from within your organization or a neighboring organization. But if you don’t know anyone who meets your needs, don’t be afraid to expand your search for the right person. In fact, the higher up the chain of command you climb, the more likely you are to have to look outside your region or even your state to find a mentor.
Although it’s fine to ask for help locating a mentor from someone you trust, don’t wait for your department to facilitate a mentorship opportunity for you. It’s your career, so take charge of it! Once you’ve identified a mentor or mentors, remember that they must accept you as a mentee, which may look different depending on who they are and what you’re after. There are even instances where a mentor will find you, so be aware of that potential as well.
After you begin a dialogue with a prospective mentor, you’ll need to communicate your needs, wants and goals with your mentor to ensure they’re aware of what you hope to get out of the relationship. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and they’ll likely let you know that up front. They may not have the time or the experience or it may be a conflict of interest. Don’t be discouraged by this. Thank them for their consideration and move on in your journey. If they seem open to it, you may be worth asking whether they know of anyone you could reach out to.
Cultivating a Relationship
Once you’ve established rapport with your mentor, be sure to keep the conversation going—especially in the beginning. Remember: You’re the one who’s looking to grow and develop, so the responsibility of keeping the relationship going in the beginning is on you, the mentee. The mentor is likely already established and with that establishment usually comes a full schedule, both professionally and personally. Don’t get discouraged when/if you initially feel like you’re doing all the heavy lifting. Whether or not the mentor realizes it, they’re testing you to evaluate your commitment to the relationship. No one wants to put time and effort into a hopeless endeavor, especially when they didn’t ask to be part of it to begin with.
As your relationship grows, you should be diligent in not treating it solely as a business transaction or professional relationship. If you’ve done your research, the mentor or mentors you’ve chosen will share your ethics and interest, and there’s a good chance you’ll form a friendship. No one wants to feel like there’s an agenda every time they have a conversation, so get comfortable speaking like friends. This helps build rapport.
Understand that if you were successful as a mentee, your mentors will likely gain as much or more than you did from the relationship.
Because it’s a friendship, don’t be afraid to ask about your mentor’s personal life, family, experiences and extracurricular activities in an effort to get to know them better. Developing an open and honest relationship with your mentor will create an environment of mutual trust, thereby enabling you to feel comfortable providing feedback or advice to them. If the relationship has been successfully fostered, your mentor will have the satisfaction of seeing how their efforts have assisted in your development and allowed you to reciprocate support.
As your relationship grows, so too should your expectations for it. Again, a mentorship is about personal development, so be honest with your mentor about what you’re after. If you ask for honest feedback, an opinion or guidance, expect to get exactly that. Be sure to seriously consider their input, but remember it’s your career and life, and you should ultimately do what’s in your best interest.
It’s also important to remain appreciative. Being a mentor is difficult, and creating a lasting relationship is even harder. A lot of time and effort goes into a successful mentorship. As a mentee, remember to say “thank you.” It may not require those exact words, but be sure to express your gratitude somehow.
Like any relationship, a mentorship—whether you’re the mentor or mentee—takes time to develop. As the relationship is built, things will get easier and more organic. Embrace this. With any luck, both individuals will benefit from a new friendship that provides support and enhances professional growth.
While we’ve discussed a lot of things for mentees to consider as they pursue their mentors, I’d like to offer some takeaways for your journey.
Put in the time: Understand that if you don’t put ample time and effort into the mentor–mentee relationship, there’s a pretty good chance the mentor will let it dissolve or drop you as their mentee. If this happens, it’s probably not personal. Being a mentor takes time.
Grow: Over time, you may outgrow your mentors. This will require you to restart the process of seeking out new ones. Understand that if you were successful as a mentee, your mentors will likely gain as much or more than you do from the relationship. This also means you’ve probably gained a colleague and should continue your relationship, but maybe in a different capacity.
Appreciate different approaches: You’ll quickly find that different mentors offer different perspectives and play different roles in your growth. It’s not a one-size-fits-all relationship. Not every mentor will have the same impact. This is important to remember, because you’ll have to adjust your expectations based on what the relationship was founded on. Some relationships will provide you guidance within your department or evolving issues. Others will give direction on how to grow within your career, and still others might simply be a sounding board where you feel comfortable venting your day’s frustrations.
Do your part: Don’t rely on others to develop your career. Instead, put in the work to get where you want to be. For many of the reasons I’ve outlined here, your department’s formal mentorship program really isn’t the same as a mentorship you initiate. The department’s program fosters more of an apprenticeship or coaching relationship. While the program may be thoughtful in matching new members with existing members, its main drawback is that it’s limited to those within the department. By pursuing your own mentorship, you’re more likely to find the right person to help ferry you through your career.
“Pass it on!”: Those are the words of Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder, and he’s right. The roles of mentor and mentee have no age or experience restrictions and aren’t mutually exclusive. As you grow and develop, be open to mentoring other members of the fire service, passing on the quality traits and experience you’ve gained throughout your career, and continue being a mentee. By doing so, you’ll further your growth and your impact on both sides of the coin.
I’ve written this article from my own experiences, and I’d like to give a special thanks to the few but extremely impactful mentors I’ve been fortunate enough to have. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.