Mentors are nothing new. It’s a concept that was popularized centuries ago. In Greek mythology there is actually a man named Mentor who was a trusted friend to Odysseus and who became a guide to Odysseus’s son Telemachus. That was back in either the 6th of 8th century according to reports by various scholars. Regardless of which date is most accurate, it’s clear that the concept of finding a mentor has been around for a long, long time.
Today, many well-known people have pointed to the value of their trusted mentors including Bill Gates who was mentored by Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey who was mentored by Maya Angelou—and Michelle Robinson (now Obama) who was a formal mentor for Barack Obama at a law firm they both worked at.
These varied relationships point to an important fact about mentoring—it’s something that can be valuable at any point in a career no matter how successful one has become.
The Nature of Mentorships
Mentorships can be both formal and informal. Many organizations have formal mentoring programs where they match senior leaders to less senior new hires to help them along their career paths. Other companies pair managers together to learn from one another or introduce newbies to established colleagues to help them navigate corporate culture.
Some organizations even call upon employees from younger generations to mentor their more experienced colleagues in areas they may not be as comfortable with; technology is the most pointed to example of this—younger employees are digital natives so they’re likely to have different insights and approaches to share with their more experienced colleagues.
But mentorships can also be informal and that’s a very important point. Just because your organization doesn’t have a formal mentorship program—and even if they do—there’s nothing to hold you back from finding a mentor on your own.
Our biggest piece of advice when finding a mentor on your own is to cast a wide net. You should look for three types of mentors:
- Someone who is similar to you and thinks like you.
- A person who is similar to you but doesn’t think like you.
- Someone that isn’t similar at all to you.
Why is this important? Because diversity of thoughts and experiences matter. We get limited value from interacting with people who are just like us. We get more value from interacting with people who are different than we are—who have different backgrounds, opinions and perspectives. If you only seek mentors who look and think like you, they will probably only be validating your beliefs. When you seek mentoring relationships with people who are different from you, you can learn to look at situations differently.
Think of this process of casting a wide net for various types of mentor relationships as building your own personal board of directors.
Another important point: don’t think that mentors are only important early in your career.
Mentors Matter at All Stages of Your Career
While it may be common to think of mentors as offering the most value early in your career, in truth mentors can be valuable at any point in your career. That might be when taking on a new project you haven’t tackled before, moving into a new position, starting at a new company, entering a new phase of life (becoming a new parent or caring for aging parents) or simply wanting to expand your knowledge and connections in a specific field.
In fact, mentors can be important to us throughout our careers—and even in retirement. They’re simply people who you can learn from and use sounding boards to help you learn and grow in a variety of ways.
It’s important, though, to understand that it’s not the mentor that is responsible for moving the relationship forward and getting the most value from it—it’s you! That starts with finding a mentor.
It’s perfectly appropriate for you to reach out to someone who you believe you could learn from to ask them if they’d be willing to serve as a mentor for you. Most people will be flattered and will readily agree to do so. Even if they don’t, it’s often simply because they don’t feel they have the time—it’s not a reflection on you.
For those who may not feel comfortable reaching out proactively on their own, your HR department, your manager or other senior leaders may be able to help you with finding a mentor. Once you do, it’s important to take steps to make the most of the mentor relationship.
Making the Most of Your Mentor Relationship
At the beginning of your relationship with a mentor, it’s important to explain what you hope to gain from the relationship and the kind of interactions and input that will be valuable to you. Then come up with a communication plan outlining when, how often and where you will meet. In a remote and hybrid world, don’t overlook the potential to have these relationships online. That also gives you the opportunity to cast a wider net to seek mentors who may not be geographically located where you are.
Be proactive in setting up these meetings and in creating an agenda to provide some structure. Send the agenda ahead of time to your mentor so they have time to prepare.
Mentors can play a critical, and powerful, role for business professionals at every stage of their careers. And, of course, as you gain experience and knowledge, you may also be in a good position to mentor others. It’s really a win-win for all involved.
Photo credit: charlesdeluvio from Unsplash