Published 16 May 2019 by Alaina G. Levine

How to Leverage Mentor-Protégé Partnerships: Some Helpful Advice

Some of the most exciting and rewarding relationships in my life have been born not from traditional friends or partners, but rather from mentors and protégés. These are people who have made an incredible difference in my existence, and while their efforts have bolstered me professionally, there is an absolute correlation with how I feel personally. The interactions I have had with both my mentors and protégés have inspired me, encouraged me to reach higher, and enabled my success in myriad, wonderful ways.

At any given point in your own life, you should aspire to craft alliances with other people who can serve as both mentors and protégés for you. These critical partnerships are helpful with so many aspects of becoming a professional, advancing in your profession, and contributing to your field. But as you seek to start these alliances, particularly if you are early in your career, it is useful to know what a possible mentor is thinking and how you can ensure that you are appropriately engaging them from the point of view as a protégé.

Responsibilities of a Mentor

As a mentor, I have sought to help my protégés understand the culture of the community and ecosystem in which they aim to be employed. I have provided them guidance, advice, information, and insight into how work works, and how they can navigate these systems for their own professional success and bliss. I have also endeavored to solidify what steps my protégés can take to craft their careers to their own specifications – an important clarification that should be noted; as a mentor, I won’t pressure my protégés into pursuing one career over another, or picking one research project over an internship. Instead, my charge is simple: to listen to my protégés and aim to understand what is motivating their decision to choose one path or project over another. I will give them information from different perspectives and help them conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the opportunity. But I will not criticise their final choice, because, after all, it is their life and they are always the chief decision-making officer.

Interestingly, it is important to recognise that the protégé is the driver of the partnership. It is this person who steers the alliance and even fortifies it. The protégé does this by keeping in touch with the mentor and sharing with them their progress towards their goals, as well as their professional objectives and milestones. Part of my role as your mentor is to champion you and to serve as a publicist for you to other established leaders. I want to get your hired! I want to help you get higher in your profession! I won’t be able to do this if I don’t know that you just published a paper or won a prestigious honour (such as being selected to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting!).

So, share with me your triumphs and trials! Let me know what you are working on. Keep me abreast of your enterprises and engagements. The more knowledge I have about you, your goals, and your passions, the more I can help you, open doors for you, and give you access to hidden opportunities. This is not bragging! You have to be open and clear with your mentor about your successes and challenges if the mentors are to enable your continued professional victory.


The Lindau Meetings are the perfect platform to foster strategic mentor-protégé-partnerships – not just with Nobel Laureates but also between the international young scientists. © Adrian Schröder/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Tactics for Protégés to Manage Missteps

There are a few other common missteps that protégés can make when crafting and growing your alliance with your mentor (and protégé!). Here are a few tips to consider to avoid and recover from these erroneous actions:

Don’t force the relationship. The mentor-protégé partnership should unfold naturally, as both parties enthusiastically and actively engage with each other. If it seems that your mentor isn’t helping you, there is no need to pester them. Simply step back and try again in a few weeks or months. And if they still don’t reply, it could be that they want to step back from mentoring you, at this time. It should not be seen as a rejection, and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t want to actively mentor you in the future. It might easily be that they don’t know what to do for you right now (which is an important nod to the idea that the protégé is the driver of the relationship and bears the responsibility of openly communicating what they are working on).

Don’t worry if they don’t respond immediately. There will be times when the mentor doesn’t answer your communiques or inquiries quickly, and that doesn’t indicate that they don’t want to be your mentor anymore. They just simply might be very busy, like, um, you! So, don’t take it personally. Send them a follow up email in a few weeks or months to see if you can get together for a Skype or in-person coffee appointment to update them on some of your projects.

Don’t withhold information about your mistakes. We all have failures. Your mentors, including Nobel Laureates, have failed in their lives. This is part of being a human individual. As your mentor, it is useful for me to know what mistake you have made or what failures you have had so I can help you understand the lessons that are to be gained from these actions, and ensure that you don’t make them again. I want to see you grow as a person and a professional, and I can’t do that fully, if I don’t know what has stymied your advancement.

Don’t discount ‘informal’ mentors. Not all of your mentors will carry the name ‘mentor‘. Of course, there are ’formal‘ mentors, such as your dissertation advisor or principal investigator, who literally are called mentors. But there are also informal mentors that are just as eager to support you and help you realise your dreams. They may not be in a formal mentorship programme with you, and you might never actually introduce them to your colleagues as ‘my mentor‘. Informal mentors can pop up at any time, anywhere. The relationship with them can ebb and flow just like that with a formal mentor, and they can also peak at certain times in your life. It is relevant to share that I have forged informal mentorship partnerships among some of the Nobel Laureates, guests, and other leader who have attended Lindau. Sometimes the partnerships go on for years, and with others, they are short stories. But they are just as valuable to me as a long-term alliance (and hopefully, given the mutually-beneficial nature of mentor-protégé partnerships, they are valuable to the mentor as well).

Lindau: A Nest of Creating Strategic Mentor-Protégé Partnerships

As I have written before, ‘Lindau is a crucible of creativity‘. With up to 40 Nobel Laureates attending each year combined with around 600 young scientists from all over the world, you are presented with a huge opportunity to connect with like-minded souls with whom you could forge a partnership. Some of the established leaders you meet may in fact become your formal mentors, and others will serve as informal, short-term mentors to you during different periods of your life. And then of course there are the young scientists with whom you may end up developing your own mentor-protégé partnerships, where you serve as a mentor to one nerd and a protégé to another. So, leverage your time at Lindau and later (because you’ll be a Lindau Alumnus/a soon, and part of the global Lindau Alumni Network #LindauForLife) to build and buoy strategic mentor-protégé partnerships. Your career will thank you. Your colleagues will thank you. And your creative spirit, the same spirit that propelled you to reach for the stars and participate in Lindau, will thank you too.

Want more info about how to nurture and leverage the critical mentor-protégé partnership? Check out this webinar I recently presented for the Lindau Community!


Alaina G. Levine

Alaina G. Levine is an award-winning entrepreneur, STEM career consultant, science journalist, professional speaker and corporate comedian, and author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), which was named one of the Top 5 Books of 2015 by Physics Today. She has delivered over 700 speeches for clients in the EU, US, Canada, and Mexico, and written over 350 articles in publications such as Science, Nature, and NatGeo News Watch. In addition to serving as a Consultant to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, she is currently writing two online courses for Oxford University Press/Epigeum about career development and entrepreneurship. @AlainaGLevine