Maintaining a Healthy Mentor-Mentee Relationship

This article is the fourth installment in a series focusing on mentorship in the bar world. In earlier parts of the series, we discussed the potential of a relationship with a mentor, how to cultivate that relationship as well as how to grow into the role of mentor. This final piece is focused on keeping the relationship healthy and thriving – something that can often be as big a challenge as finding a mentor in the first place.

Finding a mentor doesn’t happen every day. Having one in your life can mean the difference between an insurmountable obstacle and a fresh challenge. Their perspective can help you along your way, brushing away a lot of the guesswork in what can be an incredibly tough and unforgiving industry.

Behind every mentor is another mentor, all the way back into the pre-history of bartending in the 19th century USA and the infancy of the cocktail itself. Being a link in that chain is not only rewarding, but it’s important. If the secrets of the tradition are taken to the grave, they take a long time to come back, as proven by most of the 20th century: the Dark Ages of cocktails.

Here are a few thoughts on ways to maintain your mentor-mentee relationship to make sure it will continue and thrive.

 

Communication

Honest communication is the key to any healthy relationship. Any relationship comes with a degree of vulnerability. This is especially true in a mentor relationship, as it’s two people being very open about what they do and don’t know. It’s not always easy to be open, and sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of gossip and idle chatter. One of the perks of a career in bartending is the ability to crack a joke and be more than a little irreverent, but don’t lose sight of your goals.

No one enjoys admitting they don’t know something any more than someone enjoys admitting they acted a fool, even if it was just that one time, years ago. As difficult as it may be, these are the kind of talks that must happen between teacher and student. These are the conversations when real learning takes place.

If you’re not working under the same roof as your mentor or your protege, keep in regular touch. Even the latest meme over a text reminds the other that the lines of communication are open. Staying in touch regularly with the little things, a question about ice, a cocktail or a tricky guest, keeps the door open for the heavy conversations. As we’ve discussed, the relationship is very much a two-way street. This open line of dialogue can soften the blow when something earth-shattering happens. You may find yourself as the first responder to tragedy, or be the voice of reason when a relationship collapses.

While wisdom gleaned from a mentor can be based on something as simple as a single conversation, more often it’s based in a long dialogue that can be incredibly free-ranging. It’s vital to see the other half as more than simply mentor or student. After a certain point, they become friends and family. It’s almost natural to hold both teachers and students at arm’s length, but this can be a great disservice to both parties.

 

Be Humble, Seriously

We’ve discussed the importance of humility throughout this series, and it cannot be stressed enough. A winner of a Spirited Award isn’t likely to gloat over their success. It’s important to celebrate, (because you’ve earned it!), but whether you’re are the teacher or the student, bragging about success just isn’t a good look, and it distracts from all of the hard work that resulted in the accolade. One bartender’s first menu placement is another’s James Beard Award.

Furthermore, bragging about your success can risk alienating the people that helped get you there. Remember to share your success with those who helped you along the way, and then continue to share your knowledge with others. Be humble about your own successes, but be a cheerleader for your community. Help others when they struggle, and remind them that everyone hits a wall from time to time. Pointing out moments where you struggled is a great way to guide someone to success.

Knowing your flaws doesn’t just make you human, it makes you a better teacher, it makes you a better student. Mistakes are one of the most important things we can make as humans, because every single one is an opportunity to learn. Being honest and open about your own failings will only help you become stronger in the long run.

 

Time is Valuable

This goes hand in hand with communication, and we’ve already discussed the importance of treating the mentor dynamic as a two-way street. Respect is key, both for the individual and for the time the individual is so graciously sharing with you. Being able to bring something of value to the relationship is the fuel that keeps the fire burning. Simple praise is always nice, but a well-thought out recognition of the importance of the relationship to you will go much further. Engaging each other outside of the bar world is another great way to do this. Go out for a meal together and don’t talk shop for once. Exchange liquor brand swag, bring back booze from trips, write them a letter. Most importantly, when you taste success, always give credit where credit is due.

Having respect for others should be a given for any professional in the hospitality industry, but respecting the time of others is also incredibly important. The dialogue, much like the relationship itself, goes both ways. Show your mentor that you value their time by truly taking their advice to heart and implementing it. Seeing you grow and learn will be just as rewarding to them and will help them see that their time investment was worthwhile.

 

Shake It Up & Share Your Knowledge

It can be especially rewarding for a more seasoned industry veteran to have their world shaken up a bit. While they may be a total machine when it comes to navigating classic recipes and handling volume, they might not know much about advanced kitchen techniques and applying them to cocktails. Both parties can offer the other a unique perspective and a vastly increased knowledge base. New discoveries aren’t just thrilling on their own, they can take on whole new dimensions when examined from a new perspective.

Sharing the exploration of the bartending world makes both teacher and student better equipped in their careers. Share recipes, cocktail books, notes from lectures and ask each other challenging questions. Keep each other excited and engaged. No one wants to be asked a series of questions they already know the answers to. That doesn’t take them anywhere new.

Think about the techniques and skills that your mentor doesn’t know and how you can help educate them. Teach them a bit of flair or show them the latest foams you’ve been experimenting with. Use your time together to ask big questions and craft bigger answers. Once you’ve reached this point either with or as a mentor, these conversations are like improvisational jazz, and you’re constantly riffing off of each other. These talks are as invigorating as they are career-shaping.

 

Be Generous

To keep this music flowing it’s absolutely vital that you be generous with your own time and knowledge. Be there for each other. Don’t hold back. Don’t ever take the relationship for granted. You owe each other exactly what the other puts into the relationship, and the more you give, the more you’ll get out. More importantly, the more invested you are in the relationship, the more invested you are in the community. It helps bartenders the world over go above the bar and raise it that much more.

As we’ve talked about before, part of mentorship is sometimes being a leader and part of that is being a first responder. Whether it’s an issue with a guest or a more personal struggle with mental health, how we deal with these issues reflects on the health of the community as a whole. It’s not an easy job, especially with the sometimes thorny issue of mental health and substance abuse. Being generous with your time is incredibly important. Too many mentors, leaders, friends and colleagues have been lost. Keeping each other healthy helps keep the entire community healthy.

 

Gentle Pressure, Strong Support

As I was writing this series, a friend introduced me to another bartender, Casey Robison, who had recently written a meditation upon seeing a protege leave after a long relationship. He said a lot of very beautiful things about supporting a mentee, and with his permission, I’d like to share my favorite part:

“Achieving total excellence is impossible. Unless you’re the owner, the best thing you can ever hope to do is to simply control the chaos. Set your standards, and always take any moment you can to share your philosophy. Be articulate, be clear, but also let them be their own manager. Let them make their own mistakes; and always be available to pick up the pieces.

Show them the shards, explain to them WHY the glass shattered. Explore ideas on how to avoid shattering that specific glass in the future. The salt shaker might be moved from time to time; your job is to show them why it always has to come back to the center. Constant, gentle pressure.”

Bartender mentorship is as much about shielding each other from the pressures of the profession, the rough jabs, the long nights and the tough customers. It’s also about knowing why that pressure is important, and where and when to apply it. Diamonds would never be possible without pressure.

The over-eager kid carting around a copy of Embury might light the way for another excitable bartender down the road. They won’t ever be that guiding light without a mentor of their own. As bartenders, we owe it to our heritage and to our future to keep the way forward blazing bright.

Maintaining a Healthy Mentor-Mentee Relationship