On Mentoring

11/12/2011

As I reflect on my professional trajectory and how it has been impacted by other humans, I can’t help but marvel at the influence that my mentors have had on me.

At the same time, I’m often shocked when friends tell me that they don’t have any mentors and don’t know how to go about identifying one.

The tactics involved in securing mentors aren’t particularly difficult, so it might be worth addressing the topic from a different angle: being in a position to have mentors in the first place.

  • Have something that you’re (seriously) interested in: if your desire to secure a mentor at work is to avoid the harsh reality that your job is uninteresting, you might consider addressing the true source of the issue. Figure out how to make it interesting, evaluate why you’re there in the first place and whether you have to be (hint: you don’t), or — my personal favorite — quit.
  • Identify exactly what it is that you want to learn: are you trying to go from selling $10,000 per quarter to $100,000 per quarter? Do you want to live life on your own terms? Are you interested in finding out how to launch a web application in a crowded space and make it successful? These can be tied to specific outcomes that frame the nature of your relationship with a mentor. Don’t conflate the role of a mentor and a life coach.
  • Understand that having a mentor is a two-way street: if your idea of having a mentor is for someone to email you every week and offer insight into the things that you need to do in order to become more successful, you’re missing the point. A mentor rarely needs anything from you (e.g,, compensation), so one of the most important things you can do as a mentee is update your mentor on your progress. This is immensely gratifying to the mentor and the entire point of having one in the first place.
  • You don’t need someone’s permission in order for them to be a mentor: if someone doesn’t have to time to “formally” mentor you (something that’s misunderstood and unnecessary in many cases), no problem! You can mirror their actions, and absorb their wisdom from a distance. One of my most influential mentors had no idea he was mentoring me.
  • Setting expectations is important to avoid disappointment: As with any relationship that’s more than casual, expectations need to be set and there must be accountability on both sides. If someone repeatedly lets you down or is not meeting your needs, there’s no rule against having a candid discussion about expectations. If you don’t have this kind of relationship with your mentor, you might not be getting the most out of the relationship.

Further reading on the topic can be found in this fabulous post by Pam Slim.