Always wondered what mentoring is all about? Here's what a mentor does and where to find one. And why you should have a mentor too.
Mentoring seems to be a thing these days. A bit like this "internet". Everybody does it. Hardly anyone really seems to know what it's ultimately good for. Or if it will even last. Let alone how to make it mutually beneficial.
But then it could be so easy.
You've previously mastered everything on your own: How to walk, talk, ride a bicycle, or navigate the dense jungles of work, life, and everything in between. You're entirely self-taught and completely self-sufficient.
You don't need a mentor, Sir! You much rather need a biographer and a sculpturer. Oh, and probably a city planner to name some streets after you. Well done, amazing you!
Similar for mentors
All of the above is true for you. And you also think that the next generation should dig their own way out of their situation. Just like you did. Plus, you don't see a point in giving back and there's nothing left for you to learn.
You don't need to be a mentor, Sir! The world has bigger plans for you!
If the above applies to you, then please close this window and enjoy the rest of your day. Farewell and goodbye! You know where to find us in case things might change over time...
Now, what about the rest of us?! Yes. You! Me! The chap looking over your shoulder, glazing at the article you're reading.
What does mentoring really mean? And what can it do for You and me?! All of us, in fact. Oh, and how do I find a mentor?!
Let's find out.
The Role of a Mentor
A lot of mysteries sometimes surround the illusive description of a "mentor". The truth is that there's a decent chance you've already had several mentors in your life. They were just hardly ever called that.
Some went by "mum" and "dad". Some by "mate". Some by "colleague". Some you liked. Some you didn't.
But what exactly is a mentor then?
Ideally, a mentor is a guide helping you navigate the dense jungles of work, life, and everything in between. With its many traps, predators, but also lush opportunities at every turn. A mentor not only keeps you alive but also provides you with the survival skills you need so that you ultimately learn how to master any environment.
Now, in order to be an effective guide in the dense jungles, it helps to have experience. Know the lay of the land and be able to distunguish traps from opportunities. Sometimes in the form of scars that tell stories about knowledge being gained the hard way. Bear in mind that these scars might be well covered and may take time to reveal themselves.
This package usually comes in the form a senior person that tends to be slightly older than the person being introduced to the jungle surrounding them. But knowledge or age isn't everything.
Personality, style, and understanding the dynamics of an ever changing role matters.
Be There. Listen. Ask Questions.
Being a mentor is all about being there. There really should be no need for booking formal meetings. If mentoring matters then there's time to be found. After all, it's a question of priorities.
With presence established, it's then all about providing a safe space. It might sound silly and like a given but: All conversations are strictly private and confidential. No one is listening in. Nothing gets shared. Nothing is off topic.
This is where in person meetings can really help establish that all essential mutual trust. What gets said in the room stays in the room. Note that this can create a conflict of interest in some scenarios depending on the day-to-day relationship of the involved parties.
The provided safety, trust, and openness to anything can really help unblock the road to the most fundamental questions that are at the core of so many things. Sometimes it goes back to basic questions such as "Am I in the right place?" or "Does what I am doing make a difference to anyone?" or "Is there any career in this for me?!".
This is the point where the all important listening comes in. It takes a great mentor to resist the temptation to guess an answer but much rather ask additional questions and thereby gently nudge the mentee towards their own answer. After all, they are the only ones who can answer their very personal question.
Be the Natural Historian When Asked
There are of course times when a mentor gets asked more pragmatic questions related to their personal experience. This is a good opportunity to take on the role of a natural historian.
Be the old timer who has seen many things and experienced many changes in seasons and the lands below over the years. These old timers can seriously shorten the time it takes you to see, learn, or understand certain cycles or patterns.
Gaining a full picture of your situation can be a bit like a trip up a steep mountain range. It can take forever and you may not personally make it to the top. But there are pictures of it you can use to get an understanding of the lay of the land below. A good mentor should have camera rolls full of these pictures. Or even better: a map for you to use.
The everyday jungle can become a lot less scary once you know how it looks, sounds, and behaves in order to ultimately understand its inner workings and what makes it tick. Knowledge really is power.
And the old timers have a raft of knowledge. How else would they be able to keep up with the young folks?! Well, old timers may not necessarily run as quickly as the young folks — but they know the shortcuts.
Yes, this is the sort of cheap learning that everybody would love to get their hands on. And it's right there at your fingertips. All you need, is ask for it. What are you waiting for?!
Don't be surprised if a natural historian will one day turn around to you and say
That's a courageous decision. I haven't seen it work a single time in my living past. But, sure, we can try to square the circle for a 17th time...
However, there's a catch.
Every mentor tends to hand out the advice they would have liked to receive back when they were in a similar situation.
This means that all advice should be taken with a great pinch of salt. Just because that advice may have been beneficial to them in the past does not necessarily mean that it's the perfect fit for your situation as well.
Advice for how to avoid predators is useful if they actually exist in your jungle. If you don't have them, you may end up getting distracted and miss out on other real threats or fruitful opportunities.
Make it Bidirectional
So far, all the knowledge has been flowing in one direction primarily: from the mentor to the mentee. Now, this raises the following question
What's in it for the mentor then? Why do they do it?!
First up, because mentoring is all about giving back. Passing the insight knowledge that was once handed down to us on to the next generation.
Also, there's more for the mentor to learn than you may think. Just sitting on a heap of knowledge isn't good enough. Every knowledge has a half life time. And they seemingly get shorter with every season that comes around.
So, how do you add new knowledge when all you have is finite time (and not even enough of that)? How do you scale learning new things?!
This is where the mentee comes in!
Mentoring is hardly ever a one-way street. It's as much about giving back as it's about taking. And there's a raft of opportunities.
Simple examples are the latest and greatest technologies that a mentor may not have had the time to look into or experience first hand. Another one is a map of the jungle that may need a revision since it was last drawn up by the mentor. If you need some inspiration, then just ask
Teach me one thing I didn't know.
All of a sudden, the roles have slightly changed and everybody walks away with something new and useful. Cheap learning for both parties.
Fade Away — to a Different Role
With role changes between mentor and mentee becoming ever more frequent, it is time to depart as a mentor. Not in a physical sense. But much rather move to a different role. One as a friend or colleague who can still be asked for advice or opinions but rather prefers to be more passive.
This gives the mentee room to breathe, grow, and ultimately become a mentor themselves. Your job as a mentor is done. And you did well!
Think Long Term
Mentoring should probably not be regarded as a seasonal thing. It takes time to establish that all essential mutual trust. And once there is a working mutual relationship, the benefits for both sides can provide for years to come.
At some point, another benefit also enters the stage. Mentoring can also provide a very exclusive and lucrative job market. Who would you rather hire: A random person off the street that sounds amazing on paper or a mentoring partner who you have known and trusted for many years?!
How Do I Find a Mentor?
Now, for the really tricky question of how to find a mentor. To be honest, I don't have a satisfying answer myself.
Some get assigned a mentor. Some find a mentor. Some never get a mentor.
It may sounds silly but mentoring can be a bit like finding a partner. The best success I've seen so far is when mentors and mentees find each other out of their own motivation. Through informal conversations, mutual interests, or sponsored events.
There's nothing wrong with going around and asking people you trust if they would like to be your mentor. If you're just plain lucky like me, then you may already have a secret mentor who never knew he was one.
Pass on the Legacy!
Now, for the last stage in mentoring that often tends to get overlooked but is so crucial to the success of the concept as a whole.
You've had a great mentor who has taught you everything there is and now has also faded to a more passive role. This is the perfect time to remember a quote which is most commonly attributed to Isaac Newton who said
Well, you have quite benefited from the Giants. Now, it's your turn to provide some shoulders for the next generation to stand on.
The knowledge and tools handed to you are never truly yours. They need to be passed on to the next generation. Just like they were once passed on to you.
This keeps the mentoring cycle alive and ensures a steady supply of mentors at the same time. Yes, we struggle to find good mentors. And we desperately need you!
Come on, don't be afraid to de-silo your precious knowledge and pass it on to what might very well be a younger version of yourself!
So, How do You Mentor?!
While the above is my interpretation of mentoring I like to put into practice that Worx for Me!™, yours may differ.
Think this is all rubbish and that mentoring is vastly overrated in general?!
Feel free to send me an email at dominic AT how-hard-can-it.be and teach me something new!
As always, prove me wrong and I'll buy you a pint!