Breaking up with a mentor with class and grace

When a relationship has run its course, the end must be handled professionally

Mentorships aren't meant to last forever. Their purpose is to help junior employees establish goals and move forward in their career paths. Once the objective has been reached, the relationship usually lapses. But sometimes mentorships should be ended before the mentee's goals have been reached. The mentee may feel that the relationship has gone off course and that his needs aren't being met. When that happens, how do you end the relationship with class and grace? Here are some tips.

Choosing the date

Don't abruptly end the mentor relationship or expect it to fizzle out on its own. That's not fair to your mentor. Once you've decided that the relationship has run its course, choose an end date and plan to meet with your mentor at least one last time. Remember that your professional reputation is at stake, and the way you end the mentoring relationship can impact your career. Tell your mentor that your next meeting will be your last, so he or she can prepare for it.

Planning the conversation

Prepare for your last meeting with your mentor ahead of time. If you think nerves might affect you, write down your speaking points before the meeting. You'll want to address several points in this "break-up" conversation.

Start with the good

Begin the conversation by thanking your mentor for his or her time and efforts. Talk about all the highlights of the mentorship, such as meeting or exceeding goals. Give your mentor a compliment about his or her mentoring style, such as always making time for you, having great strategic ideas or speaking with candidness.

Communicate your reason for ending things

Tell your mentor exactly why you are ending the relationship. For mentees who have accomplished their goals early, this will be an easy task. On the other hand, mentees who are ending their relationships because of a poor personality fit, lack of communication or other problems might find it difficult to tell their mentors the truth. But this can be done in a diplomatic manner. For example, if you are ending things because your mentor is never available, you could say, "I'm afraid our schedules are just not compatible, though the time we've spent together has been very valuable to me." If you are ending things because your personality is not a fit with your mentor's, you could say, "I've had time to reflect on my own communication style, and I think I need a mentor who has a similar approach."

Give your mentor honest feedback

Just because the mentorship didn't work out doesn't mean your mentor is "bad" or can't improve. Give honest feedback, so that your mentor can be better in the future. Mention the advice that helped you the most, and diplomatically suggest areas where the mentor could have been more helpful. For example, if your mentor only gave negative criticism, you could say, "I know that novice questions must be irritating to someone so advanced in our field. Maybe you could come up with a list of commonly asked beginner questions and answers for your next mentee so you don't have to keep answering the same things over and over."

Dealing with hurt feelings

Mentors are human beings, and some of them will have hurt feelings when a mentorship ends unexpectedly. While you want to be as polite and respectful as possible, remember that you can't take responsibility for another person's feelings. Your mentor may feel embarrassed or angry when you end things, which is why you want to give him or her advance notice of the end date. That way, he or she isn't put on the spot and will have time to process emotions before the last meeting.

On the flip side, your mentor may also feel that the relationship has run its course and didn't know how to break things off with you. In this case, he or she may feel a sense of relief.

Moving beyond

Some mentor relationships will transition to professional or personal friendships, while others will not. If you'd like to stay in touch with your mentor, tell him or her that you'd enjoy meeting up every once in a while for lunch or dinner. If you don't want to see your former mentor outside of the professional setting, then simply thank him or her and say that you're grateful for all the help. End the conversation by briefly summarizing the successes of the mentorship and thanking your mentor one last time.

Learning from the experience

Even if your first mentorship didn't go as planned, it doesn't mean that the relationship wasn't worthwhile or that you won't have a successful mentorship in the future. Take some time to reflect on what you gained from the mentorship -- even if the only thing you learned is what not to look for in a future mentor. In general, mentorships should last between nine and 18 months, so remember to set a target date when starting a new mentorship. You can also agree on how you will end things and plan an exit strategy ahead of time. When the conversation occurs at the beginning of the relationship, it makes for a smooth and successful transition when it's time to move on.

Kerrie Main is the communications specialist at Mentor Scout. She can be reached at Kerrie.main@nobscot.com.

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