A Mentor For Life

I originally wrote this short paper about mentors while doing my MBA at Santa Clara University. I still believe what I wrote and made a few minor edits, though the speak is a little more formal than I would have written it today. I have withheld the interviewees’ last names as I didn’t ask their permission to publish their names at the time.

A Mentor For Life

To some people, the word “mentor” evokes images of scholarly teachers and students who are fresh-faced and eager to learn about a particular subject. This traditional view of the mentor has been changing into what is becoming an essential component of a businessperson’s success. Now, most have at least one mentor, and are serving as a mentor to someone else in business, personal, and career matters. The misconception that being mentored occurs mainly at the beginning of your career is eroding away to the reality that you can benefit from mentors during all stages of your career.

Why Have A Mentor?

The first step in having a mentor is deciding what your needs are regarding mentoring. Understanding the potential benefits of a mentor before you begin your relationship will help you get the most out of your interactions.

People who seek out mentors in their career are often inquisitive, willing to learn, and sometimes are at a crossroads in their career or personal life. They sometimes seek someone who has gone through a similar experience or can give advice about their available options. Sometimes a mentor is simply someone removed enough from the situation to give clear advice and an evaluation of the situation.

Contrary to the belief held by some about being mentored early in their career, those who have realized the value of mentors know that they will continue to be mentored throughout their lives. Lori M. doesn’t envision a time in her career when she won’t need a mentor. “I believe that I will have several mentors well beyond retirement.” A.W. recalls some of her most influential mentors as those she met later in her life and forged relationships with as she herself was being a mentor to others. Peter identifies mentors as a “keystone for development of leadership skills. Early in your career, your relationship with your mentor will only enhance your ability to talk to more senior leaders.”

Choosing A Mentor

Some companies provide an internal, organized mentoring program for their employees that match up mentors and mentees according to goals, experience or field. Sometimes this is the only way workers know that there are mentoring services available, or this is their first exposure to a mentoring experience. Many people know very little about what a mentor is or why they would need one, and exploring an existing program is a good way to begin to understand your needs and dislikes regarding mentoring.

Though the pre-arranged mentoring programs provide a way to assign mentees with mentoring services, many feel that this method of matching mentors and mentees based on statistics or explicit interests can’t compare to a match formed from actual interaction. “A mentor can’t be chosen for you, you need to choose your own,” Lori remarked. Arranged mentorships aren’t as successful as those sparked by real chemistry or interest from both parties. This mutual interest will create the level of rapport needed to sustain the relationship, as well as increasing the level of trust in the advice given to you.

Lori recalls one time when she was matched with an unlikely mentor – he was twice her age, they had no common ground, and couldn’t relate to her experiences. “It was painful,” she recalls, “and the relationship was more going through the motions than providing each of us with benefit.” Peter R. also recognizes self-selection as a benefit, as he was able to select his mentors throughout his career.

Some individuals intentionally choose mentors for their diversity of opinion, or contrast to their own situation or background. Judy, a retiree, speaks of the benefits of having a male mentor – “having a mentor of the opposite sex can provide an alternative point of view, especially in examining interactions.”

As it becomes clear that you benefit from having a relationship with a mentor, it also becomes clear that you will need more than one. You will need multiple mentors for different purposes in your life, as they are able to motivate and counsel you in different areas of your life. A mentor can be anyone – as A.W. stated, “A mentor can be anyone with more knowledge or experience in the area you are seeking information or advice on.”

Even with all the different roles a mentor can play, they can be lumped into three main types: Personal Life Mentor, Career Path Mentor, and Life Path Mentor.

Personal Life Mentor

Personal mentors may benefit you during important or turbulent times in your life – a relationship or location change, finding satisfaction in your current situation, or finding other outlets for your personal and spiritual growth. Many people use their personal life mentors to vent about situations in their personal lives, relationships, and even careers to someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation, or who can give advice and feedback in the best interests of the mentee. Others use their personal mentors for their strengths as financial advisors or investors, or even spiritual growth. A mentee is more likely to spend time with this mentor in a non-work or after-hours environment, as their relationship is more casual, and probably based on some shared experiences and trust.

Career Path Mentor

This could be someone in an industry or company you are interested in learning more about. This mentor could be inside your current company as well as outside your company. The further removed this mentor is from your work environment, the greater the possibilities to broaden your networking potential. In choosing this mentor, you should look for a few important things – does this person have a good grasp on the field or company? Do you respect this person? Do they have contacts and connections that might benefit you in your career? Choosing a mentor who appears to be continually promoted can provide a significant learning opportunity. You may look to this mentor to provide you with feedback regarding work and business decisions and situations. You may also rely on this person to share information about a job or industry you are not familiar with, and hopefully provide you with business contacts for the future.

Life Path Mentor

This mentor is someone with a similar background, and has gone through some similar things, who has traits and qualities you would like to possess. This person may have gone through similar changes such as going back for education, changing similar gears in their careers (such as industry to teaching or government), but they may not work at a company you desire to work in, or even in the same industry. They may have completely passed the point of where you are, but have been at that point, and are able to give some retrospection on those choices and changes that occurred in their own lives. Often this mentor is the most common, sometimes taking the form of a parent or older sibling.

Meeting Your Mentor

If you know of a person you may want to have as your mentor, and you have no previous relationship, one suggestion is that you contact that person and offer lunch or an after-work meeting to talk more about that person’s career and work experience. You may want to include some information about your own work experience and goals to give your potential mentor more of your background.

Talking to people who are friends and not prospective mentors about your career and life goals should also provide you with an alternative to locate a mentor. By discussing your needs, desire or confusion, you may find a friend or someone within your existing network without having noticed this connection before. Your level of comfort in trusting them and appreciating their advice may be an indicator of a potential mentoring relationship. You may also get a referral to another, better-suited mentor during your discussions.

Providing Value Back To Your Mentor

A.W. considers this to be an important part of the mentoring relationship. As a mentee, you can’t consider the relationship to be purely one of take, take, take. Remembering that your mentor has their own problems and needs to share their life as well will make you more sensitive to the needs of your mentor. Sensing the mood of your mentor is a valuable skill to be cognizant of during your interactions. If they are too busy or stressed themselves, be sure to acknowledge that and offer your assistance or ear for a change. If the mentor sees you as a source of support as well, it will strengthen your relationship.

Remember to help your mentor help you. If you are not sure what you’re looking for in terms of advice or feedback, you may both become apathetic or frustrated with your interactions. You should be honest with yourself about your needs and desires, as well as fears, and convey them to your mentor. Having your mentor understand your fears will help them give you direct suggestions in those areas that  need the most growth. Also, building an open and honest relationship and accepting the comments and suggestions that result in both parties being honest will help you grow and improve to a greater degree. Some people might be afraid of this honest candor in the beginning of the mentoring relationship, but by encouraging your mentor to embrace this type of interaction, it will greatly increase the rapport and trust between the two of you. Roger remembers his mentors as “being in my face, pushing me to find the next challenge and what’s next.”

Make your interactions productive. Though sometimes you need to have a session or two of venting with your mentor in order to clear some emotions, it is important to make sure your sessions and interactions with your mentor are productive. Setting goals or objectives in your meetings, or at least topics of discussion can help channel the feedback, advice, and planning coming from your mentor. Action items for both parties are not unusual, and can involve further linking your two networks together, such as getting an introduction or reference from your mentor.

Recognizing Mentors Later in Your Career

Mentors exist in various forms throughout your career and life. Many of the mentors may not fit into the three categories discussed, but they still fill the role of mentor. Many people retrospectively recognize their first mentor as a parent or teacher, well before their careers began. Later in your career, some mentors take on the role of a close friend or confidante, or in Peter’s case, his advisory board. “They started as informal advisory board, and now they are a formal one. Leaders grow a great deal by drawing on the experiences of others.”

What do you think about mentors? Do you have one? Are you one?

Image by AnyaLogic

1 reply »

  1. This is a great well rounded post on the virtues of mentors. I personally find most of my mentors would fall under the “Personal Life Mentors” category as I’ve sought out the kinds of mentors that can help me excel outside a traditional work environment. I like the fact that you’ve identified having mentors in many areas of your life, and agree that it’s important to look for ways to add value back to your mentor as well, and not just approach the relationship from a WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) perspective.

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / WordPress.com. Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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