How to Be the Best Mentee: Lessons Worth Learning From Someone Who Wasn’t

Mentee, Jonathan Santiago (left), Mentor, Chris Burrous (right)

Many times, a simple act of kindness is enough to make a mark. The influence you can have by throwing your arm over someone in need can mean so much.

Chris Burrous did that for me.

When I heard Chris had passed away, his mentorship came first came to mind. I’ve worked with intelligent, talented, and kind people throughout my life. But Chris was one of the few with experience who also provided advice I could take into action.

Despite his reassuring guidance, I wasn’t always the most enthusiastic mentee. Over time, Chris and I lost touch, and I wish we kept in contact knowing what I know now. His death reminded me I could have done better.

Finding a great mentor isn’t always easy. In fact, most times it’s pretty hard. But being a great mentee? Well, that’s often the bigger challenge.

How I Found My Mentor…or Rather, How He Found Me

Chris and I met at KFBK, a news radio station in Sacramento where I began my career. Chris came by way of TV, serving as an anchor/reporter on KMAX’s Good Day Sacramento. Since he was only a fill-in, we worked together just a handful of times.

Chris was a talented broadcaster. He had a soothing, baritone voice that always warmed the airwaves. Whether on TV or on the radio, his wit and command of a program always seemed to shine.

Not long after we worked together, the major markets came calling for Chris. In the spring of 2010, WPIX in New York offered him his next big break. Less than a year later, Chris returned west by transferring to KTLA, WPIX’s sister station in Los Angeles.

As impressed as I was by him, it surprised me to find out that Chris was equally impressed by me. “Few people are as interested in the overall product as you seem to be,” he once wrote in an email he sent me.

In real life, becoming a mentee is different from what we see in movies and TV. There’s no single moment that makes a mentor’s presence obvious in your life. A relationship between a mentor and mentee starts subtly. Then, it grows into something more meaningful over time.

Finding a mentor is part good fortune and part hard work. Luck placed Chris and me in the same studio in 2009. But my attention to detail when we worked together also made him believe in my cause.

KTLA’s Tribute to Chris

What Makes Great Mentors? There Are Two Defining Traits

The first sign is that they give without expecting anything in return

It’s rare to meet someone who advises and opens doors for you as Chris did for me. Chris understood the challenges of breaking into media and felt that I could use a hand. Chris gave me a roadmap for navigating the business with no strings attached.

When his station needed a new camera operator, he offered to hold it for me if I wanted to try TV. From Seattle to LA, he connected me with former colleagues and friends who he trusted could help. These acts came from Chris’ generosity and carried zero expectation in return. Chris had resources and never thought twice about sharing them.

The second sign of great mentors? They offer guidance that’s specific and actionable

Chris always gave me thorough and exact advice. He never skimped on the details and shared personal stories as examples. His tips weren’t shallow either. They always included tactics I could try.

In one of several email exchanges in which I sought his advice, Chris had plenty to say.

Screenshot of an email with Chris Burrous.

Chris also shared this insight on pitching.

Another screenshot of an email with Chris Burrous.

Last, he offered this nugget of wisdom. It’s timeless and applicable to anyone seeking work.

Another screenshot of an email with Chris Burrous.

Great mentors lean in to, not run from, responsibility. They’re not afraid to invest their time and compassion even if it winds up a sunk cost. They relish, not groan, giving advice to others, even to those who choose not to use it.

Being a Better Mentee: Three Powerful Concepts I Wish I Knew

Chris did everything he could and more for me. He acted as a sounding board whenever I needed.  But as a mentee, I knew I left a lot on the table.

There are things I know now that I wish knew then.

Don’t Be Afraid to Engage

Mentorship is not a one-way relationship. It requires as much engagement from the mentee as it does the mentor. What you put in as a mentee is what you get out.

Though I reached out to Chris and sought his advice, I didn’t do it enough and emailed him only a handful of times a year. Although Chris offered his support, I often hesitated to reach out.  I often felt like a nuisance whenever I asked him for help.

Don’t feel like you’re a nag when you reach out to engage. If anything, you’re showing your mentor you have interest with every text, email, or call that you make. When a mentor gives, reciprocate that value with curiosity and ask questions as often as you can

Be Open to the Challenge

A good mentee answers the call of a mentor when challenged. Many times, mentors will tell mentees things they don’t want to hear. They might give advice that mentees might hesitate to take.

Chris encouraged me to leave Sacramento to advance my career. But at the time, I saw moving as the last resort. The thought of going elsewhere didn’t sound easy, and I had grown comfortable with what I had.

Don’t be afraid to do what’s uncomfortable. Practice facing your fear in small doses, knowing that you have someone to lean on for support. In my case, I could have taken the plunge and moved somewhere like Los Angeles, even if only for a few months.

Build a Belief in Yourself Using Your Mentor’s Support

Often times, I lacked a commitment to Chris’ best advice. When faced with a little adversity, I didn’t persist as much as I could have. That tip about playing the numbers game? I gave up too soon. I reached out to only a dozen, not 50, different stations.

My confidence took a beating every time no one wrote back. The lack of response left me doubtful of my ability and self-worth. Those limiting beliefs affected me more than anything Chris said or did.

Mentors can share their knowledge. They can offer great connections. But if you don’t believe in yourself, nothing they do for you can change your circumstances.

So, give more weight to their feedback than anyone else. Don’t worry about everyone who’s told you no. If there’s any wavering doubt, remember you have at least one person in your corner. Having a mentor is all the validation you need to believe you can confront any task.

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Jonathan is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jonathan on Twitter or Instagram.

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