How to Be a Great Mentee

Jan 24, 2019

By Vaughn L. McKoy

Mentorship changed my life. It helped me survive the streets and escape the poverty and the seemingly inescapable cycle of drugs, crime, prison, and death that traps young people, especially African-American boys. Over the course of 44 years, many men and women have played crucial roles in my development. From little league coach Tom Fields, to elementary school teacher Karen Ligouri, to casino magnate Arthur M. Goldberg, each in their distinct way left indelible impressions that contributed to my rise from public housing to public service and beyond through mentorship.

Here is my advice for mentees, based on 10 insights about mentoring I’ve learned over the years that have enabled me to experience transformative mentoring relationships:

1. Vulnerability: The first step to establishing an effective mentoring relationship is to slowly expose your weaknesses so that your mentor can focus his or her efforts on what you need to do to achieve independence and success. Let your guard down so your mentor can build you up.

2. Adaptability: To maximize the relationship, you must be willing to adjust to changing circumstances, even if they pull you away from your plans or take you out of your comfort zone. 

3. Accountability: To gain the respect and admiration of a mentor, you must be accountable for your actions, good or bad. Your mentor is in a superior position to judge your actions, provide encouragement, or initiate correction.

4. Responsibility: To demonstrate your willingness to learn and lead, take charge of the relationship by doing things within your control and sphere of influence. Chances are the mentor has something you want or need, so you have to show initiative and own development of the relationship.

5. Reliability: To respect and honor your mentor’s time, you must perform under routine, hostile, or unexpected circumstances to make the mentor feel confident that you will be there and ready when opportunity knocks. No mentor wants to be embarrassed by a mentee.

6. Confidentiality: To add value to the mentor, create a safe environment for the mentor to share ideas, thoughts, and feelings about things that are top of mind, but not for public consumption. You must prove yourself to be trustworthy to move from a surface relationship to one of real depth that energizes you both.

7. Invisibility: Acknowledge the time and other demands placed on your mentor: know when to retreat. Learn the art of being felt and heard but not necessarily seen all the time. Mentors are human and sometimes need a break from the time and effort needed to invest in relationships. Knowing when to fall back will make your mentor want to spend more time with you.

8. Credibility: For the mentor/mentee relationship to work optimally you must demonstrate, among others things, all the points above, which will assist in the development of integrity, expertise, or authority in certain matters, and personal charisma or dynamism that causes the mentor and others to respond to the mentee in positive ways.

9. Creativity: Demonstrate enthusiasm for the relationship and the benefits derived: think outside of the box to discover new ways of interacting with a mentor. For example, one of my mentors liked to lift weights, so we met in the weight room and talked while we trained.

10. Opportunity: Show genuine appreciation for the mentor’s investment. Look for opportunities to publicly and privately display your gratitude for the relationship. It makes a difference.

If you want to learn more about what it takes to move into a management role, consider these AMA seminars:

About the Author(s)

Vaughn L. McKoy is a corporate lawyer and executive at an energy company in Newark, New Jersey. He has also served as a federal and state prosecutor. He is the author of the new book Playing Up: One Man’s Rise from Public Housing to Public Service Through Mentorship. For more information, visit