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Showing (the Right) Initiative

As a modern mentee who manages your mentoring partnerships, you know that you’re supposed to show initiative. In fact, Showing Initiative is one of nine mentoring skills used by effective mentees.

Is there such a thing as too much? Does timing matter? This article will help you determine how you can be proactive without going over the edge.

How Much Is Too Much?

A few years ago, one of my past mentees taught me a valuable lesson on this topic. As Sally (not her real name) and I began to explore goals to work on, I could see that she needed to develop her skills in writing proposals for federal funding. While I was fairly strong in this area, I wasn’t an expert. In passing I casually mentioned “Hank,” a friend of mine who was a real pro. Can you guess what happened?

A few days later I got an angry call from Hank. “Who’s this Sally? She called me, dropped your name, and asked me for xyz. I felt on the spot so agreed to a bunch of things I shouldn’t have. What’s going on?” Ouch. A mentee with too much initiative, and I was paying the price.

What did Sally do wrong? Without checking with me, she found Hank’s last name and number and boldly called him with her list of requests. Was she at fault? Yes. And so was I. I was the mentor, so I should have been smarter about teaching her my “rules” of showing initiative and about protocol related to my valued contacts.

Since then, I’m very careful about mentioning potential helpers to my mentees. I let the mentees know it’s a possibility and that I’m going to take some time to observe them first to see who might be a good fit. Then I make the first contacts with the possible helpers and brief my mentees on what is and isn’t appropriate to request.

Your mentors will vary greatly on what they expect from you regarding initiative. Some may be extremely casual and willing to go along with whatever you want to do. Others will prefer that you show almost no initiative beyond what’s officially agreed upon in your mentoring meetings.

Suggestions to Consider

1. Discuss this topic with your mentors.

Early in your relationships, ask your mentors directly about any preferences and expectations. For example, “I’d like to be proactive in our relationship and make suggestions about what I try and possible help I need. Are you all right with my showing quite a bit of initiative?” (Wait for an answer.) “Would you be willing to let me know when I go too far or not far enough?” Chances are your mentor will appreciate the discussion and not be completely sure what he/she actually wants until you take a few steps.

2. Watch your timing.

Although some mentors are very flexible and don’t mind your proposing a great deal right from the start, be sensitive to the overall protocol of mentoring. Remember, your mentors are doing you a big favor. Wait at least a meeting or two to learn their style and preferences before you make multiple requests. Be sensitive to their workload and limited time. Let them offer before you ask for things, but have some good ideas up your sleeve in case they ask what you'd like.

3. Experiment with initiative.

Depending on your style and comfort level, take some risks. Most mentors are very good about pushing back and saying no if what you ask is beyond their comfort zone. So go ahead and make suggestions. Here are some examples:

4. Ask for feedback.

Right from the start, let your mentors know that you want their frank feedback on what you do well and what you could do better. Stay non-defensive and open, even if they’re not sensitive or polished in their feedback skills. Incorporate their feedback and let them know how it helped.

5. Reflect on what you learn about yourself.

Study yourself as you experiment with showing initiative with mentors. Are you bolder than you thought you’d be? Do you need to be more assertive? If so, how can you develop this ability? Should this be one of your goals to work on with a mentor? How do you react to hearing “No”?

Each time you work with a new mentor, you’ll get better at using initiative. Remember, also, to let your own mentees know what to expect from you and how they can grow in this important skill.

Showing (the Right) Initiative
by Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones