How to Break Up With Your Mentee

Have you ever reached that awkward point in the mentoring relationship? You know that one. Your quarterly meeting with the mentee is coming up and you’re just simply dreading it. Or maybe you’re simply short on time and have more mentees than minutes in a day.

Here’s a radically simple process to address this problem. Send them an email to your mentee(s) that goes something like this—


 I’m taking a hard look at my calendar as I prep to take on <insert big, sexy and important time consuming project here>. And it got me thinking—I want to make sure I’m best serving YOU as your mentor. So I can better help you, what are you looking for from our mentoring relationship right now? I want to ensure the time we spend together is most useful to you.

I predict a few most common responses you’ll get–

Reason 1: I am just looking for you to be my advocate! My Champion! (I’m convinced 80% of the time this is what they want)

  • How to Respond Affirmatively: Great! I’m happy to do that for you. I’m your #1 fan! Instead of continuing to meet quarterly, why don’t we get creative? How about you send me an email once a quarter sharing your top 1 – 3 recent accomplishments? And whenever you apply for a job please let me know so I can advocate for you if it’s an area I’m familiar with.
  • How to Respond Negatively: Thanks for letting me know that! Bring your recent accomplishments and lessons learned when we meet again. (ONLY DO THIS NEXT PART IN PERSON)BE DIRECT.
    1. Tell them specifically why you supported them in the past—they demonstrated strategic thinking with a certain project. They demonstrated leadership when working on _________. Let them relish in what you used to see in them for a hot second.
    2. But also tell them why you’re not able to back them right now. Maybe you’ve recently observed negative behaviors in them like being problem-oriented over finding solutions, negative, ineffective or just plain lazy lately. Or they’ve stalled out on growing their strategic thinking for their level.
    3. Offer one suggestion on how they can change that negative behavior in the near future. I promise you’ll be doing them the biggest favor of their career by telling them the real reason you’re not inspired to support them at the moment. Nothing will light a fire faster. It’s the kindest thing you could actually do.


Reason 2: I want your help and input in designing a career path for myself.  

  • How to Respond if You’re Not Interested/Able To Help: That’s an important and large undertaking that I’m not qualified to take on with you. Why? Because only you know you best! And no amount of talking with me is going to change that fact. Now I don’t want to leave you completely high & dry so here’s 3 questions you might want to ask yourself (3 Columns Exercise)–
    • What work do you enjoy?
    • What work are you good at?
    • What new skills do you want to grow into some day?

Definitely leverage your manager as you work through these. And once you have more clarity on what your dream career path is, I’d love to hear it to see if I can be of help again to you.


Reason 3: I just want to shoot the shit.

  • How to Respond: Thanks for being honest & letting me know that. Unfortunately, with <insert big new sexy, important project or role you’re taking on> I am not able to take casual meetings. If there’s something specific I can help you with do let me know. Otherwise, I’ll go ahead and cancel our recurring meeting. We can schedule ad hoc meetings in the future when there’s something specific I can help you with.


Reason 4: I want your help with this thing (that the mentor doesn’t really want or can’t help with).  

  • How You Can Respond: You’ve got an interesting <insert the the thing they shared> there! Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m best suited to help you there so I’ll cancel our future meetings. As you may know, I am really focused on <insert your mantra or career passion here> as my specialty with mentoring right now. I might suggest you set up time with <insert a person you know that could actually better help them with their thing or their leader’s name> as a first line of defense in helping on this one instead. Best of luck!


Yes, this process will take a bit more work than the ABSOLUTELY DO NOT DO THIS list below but it allows you to end the relationship in a direct and dignified way providing closure to everyone involved. Lastly…


  • Don’t just keep cancelling or pushing out a status. Have some balls and address the issue directly. You’re short on time or you just aren’t that impressed with them lately (see #2 above on how to do this in a kind way).
  • Don’t just non-renew the recurring meeting with you when it runs out. Again, take the time tell them why you aren’t able to mentor them any longer. Be direct. Closure is a good thing for everyone or they might just keep bugging you ad hoc.
  • Don’t tell your mentee’s boss you don’t want to mentor them anymore. They might try to do the dirty work for you and make the situation much, much worse. Feedback triangles are the absolute worst. Avoid them at all cost by addressing why with your mentee directly.
  • Don’t sugar coat or push off a mentee’s poor performance. If they’re underperforming and that’s causing your support to wane you should absolutely take the time to tell them. See #1 above on how.
  • Don’t speak negatively of them without telling them first. They’re under the impression that you are their ally. So if you’re tanking them in a talent review meeting with other leaders you’d better be sure you’ve told them first.

For the record—I don’t want to break up with any of my mentees or mentors! And I hope you’re glad to know that if I ever do I’ll be radically candid using one of the methods above.



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