I received this email recently:

Dear Alexandra:  A college graduate asked me to be her mentor.  What does this mean?  I have two kids in high school and I’m a little worried that I don’t have time for such a thing.

Attached at the Hip?

It’s a valid concern.  You want to help out a young professional, but you also have a day job and a family.  You don’t want to spend several hours every week helping her navigate through every minute aspect of her job search, college-to-career transition, or problem at work.

Lay out the Relationship Clearly

Fortunately, a good mentor relationship doesn’t necessarily entail that you become your mentee’s third parent.  The key is to concretely establish the parameters at the beginning of the relationship so that you and your mentee are on the same page.  What are her expectations, and will you be able to meet them?  What is she looking for help with specifically? How often will you meet, and how/when will she contact you outside of those meeting times?  How long will the engagement last?

It’s Easier Than it Sounds

You don’t have to turn a mentoring engagement into your next giant project.  In fact, you may well find that you have the ability to help your mentee meet her goals and pursue her path with confidence simply by occasionally sharing your own experiences and what you learned from them.  This can often be done over one or two lunch meetings. Most of my mentoring relationships have been relatively short-lived, and it’s a pleasure to see that the few hours I invest on the front end often significantly influence my mentee’s future.  And often, I learn from them too! You can make a difference without having to replace the time and care you spend nurturing the important individuals in your life.

Alexandra Levit is a Partner at PeopleResults and is passionate about helping people and organizations succeed in the evolving workplace. You can reach her at alevit@people-results.com or on Twitter @alevit.