I feel a little weird about the word “mentor,” but I’m forcing myself to get over that. Remember that Seinfeld episode (I know, enough with the Seinfeld references, but it’s often the only way I can make sense of the word) where the woman who just got engaged used the word “fiancé” every chance she got? It annoyed Elaine to no end, and it made the woman look like a self-absorbed idiot.
Not unlike “fiancé,” “mentor” has some baggage. “My mentor” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue and I feel like it suggests some weird Mr. Miyagi/Daniel-san car waxing/fence painting/crane jumping in a fishing boat situation. When really, for me at least, mentorship means frank discussion, a seasoned perspective and valuable advice over email, the phone or a glass of wine.
We all need mentors. Friends, family and partners will listen to you vent, celebrate your success and comfort you amidst failure. But all of that will definitely be mixed up in the complications of love, emotion and personal relationships. A mentor cares about you and your career equally.
So, if you don’t already have a mentor how do you get one? If you’re still in school, you’re in a great position to find a mentor, as you’re surrounded by educated people who are used to guiding others. Workplaces are good, too. And that includes past jobs. A mentor you used to work with can be super helpful because they know you, and you have a common professional context, but you won’t find yourself talking about topics that are more about your company or organization than your career.
How do you actually know someone might be a good mentor and not just a cool person? Here are some (unofficial, totally subjective) qualities to look for:
You want to be like them. It’s not just that they’re successful, but there’s something about them – particular skills, the way they manage people, a particular project of piece of work – that you admire.
They’re a bit older. Or at least much more experienced. I think we can learn a lot from our peers, but oftentimes they’re working on the same issues.
They’re generous with their time. This doesn’t mean that they’re always available. It may take a few weeks to get on their calendar, but when you do have the opportunity to connect you have their undivided attention.
They have x-ray vision. Not literally. But they can look a situation or problem and help you understand the real issues. And opportunities. Good mentors can help you find the hidden learning opportunities in frustrating experiences.
You feel energized after a conversation with them. Good mentors don’t lecture you and tell you everything you’re doing wrong. Even when giving feedback that’s hard to hear, they find ways to assure you that you’re smart and capable (because they really do think you’re smart and capable).
They’re humble and have a sense of humor. I suppose you could have a decent mentor who’s cocky and humorless. I just know I can’t. If someone can’t laugh at themselves, I can’t take them seriously.
You always wish you had more time with them. But that makes the time you do have even more valuable.
Say you find someone with all this and more. Then what? Do you have to ask someone to be your mentor? Is there some kind of ceremony? No, I don’t think that’s necessary. The best relationships evolve organically, so ease into things by asking for small amounts of their time (e.g. a cup of coffee, ten minutes on the phone). Have a few key questions or topics you want to cover and, if things go well, ask if they’d be open to talking again sometime in the future.
And SAY “THANK YOU.” Always. Say it at the beginning and end of the conversation and again in an email the next day.
Questions: Did I miss any good mentor qualities? Do you have a mentor? What’s that person like?