Finding the right mentor—for me

Close vote this week, but this topic was the winner. Please vote!

Spent an afternoon with some very ambitious and clear minded employees of Lockheed Martin last week. Enjoyed their challenges and questions. Most of them merely received reinforcement from me, others may have endured a sharp nudge to do what they have been wanting to do. I wish them all well. Mentoring dominated our discussions and this question was one of our focal points. Working in large multi-level organizations like LM presents different challenges and opportunities. The key is maintaining a high level of self awareness, not letting yourself succumb to the mindset of limits that a large hierarchy can impose. How do I become an intraprenuer?–someone who innovates, takes responsibility for their own destiny, creates value beyond the norm–yet is without separate capital and finds themselves in a large and seemingly intractable culture. The other strategy is to never be limited by your "day job". Pursue interest areas, your ideas, join others in social or commercial ventures on your own time, outside of work. Never let your current environment dictate who you are and who you can be. And one of the most powerful ways of achieving success inside a big corp or on your own is to have fabulous mentors.

But finding the right mentors can be daunting. I think more often than not, people try and align their current career path with their mentors. While greater expertise can be a valuable goal, the mentors to which I refer can be very different. Let's review this mentoring thing. 

Mentoring is the process of helping each other get better. It is a 2-way street. While it can be arranged by others, like your employer, mentoring requires a relationship that depends on chemistry and trust. Mentoring is a reality check. Helping one another see the truth, it is not merely encouragement or support. It is a reflection in the mirror of life to guide you to what you want and who you want to be. In all walks of life mentoring is recognized as one of the most powerful sources of transformation.

Some basic myths about mentors:
  1. My mentor will always be an older/wiser person. There is a mythology that mentoring can only be conducted by gurus or the super successful. Mentoring can come from many sources and age, status, years of experience will never guarantee good mentoring. Since we are defining mentoring as real and honest feedback, if you are open to it, can come from anywhere. I have been mentored by at-risk youth under my care, or young ambitious employees who shared with me insights and un-filtered observations that helped me become more aware of my shortcomings and weaknesses.
  2. Arranged mentors have just the same chance of success of any I create. Maybe, maybe not. Corporate assigned mentors have one major drawback, if they do not work–very hard to change or stop without some political consequences. Because mentoring is so dependent on compatibility, chemistry, the establishment of common interests for success, often your mentor selections may be more effective and flexible. 
  3. My boss, my spouse, my best friend can be my best mentors. Again yes and no. Clearly under the right circumstances and your relationship, these can work. But sometimes distance creates more objectivity, more chance for the required reality checks of honest exchange. Mentoring is not unconditional encouragement or cheer leading for your team. In fact this is irritating at times. It is the relationship that offers the unmitigated reflection of what you do, not what you say.     
  4. Demographics are irrelevant, I can be mentored by anyone regardless of their profile. Absolutely true. However, you may need a special understanding that a woman, new immigrant, or culturally specific group member may be able to understand. But never limit your mentoring to these categories.  
  5. Having more than one mentor takes too much time and will be distracting. As implied above, multiple mentors is always better than one. Just as you are many personas and possess many goals, you will need several mentors to help you achieve your goals. In fact, suggests Kathy Bram, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Boston University School of Management, putting all your mentor eggs in one basket can be a mistake. "I think people really ought to think in terms of multiple mentors instead of just one," concludes Kram, the author of Mentoring at Work.  And they don't all have to be grizzled business veterans. "Peers can be an excellent source of mentor-ship," she says.   
  6. A good mentoring relationship should last a year or so. Different from a mentoring program that has time limits, mentoring will last as long as it is valuable to both parties. It may be a couple of sessions, it may be for life. Having a pre-set time limit is foolish. In my work with Big Brothers Big Sisters, we routinely turned down mentors who came with set time limits. We knew that these people were not interested in building a relationship and helping a kid, they were most focused on a limited and selfish experience. Never did these potential mentors ever ask, how long would be best for the kid?!!!!!
  7. Can't I find a mentor online? As you know, you can find anything online. And there are sites offering mentoring services and matches. No eHarmony for mentors yet! Mentoring has to have a substantial face to face component. Certainly relationships and the ongoing give and take can happen online, but the foundation of the relationship starts in person.  

Before you go off and seek your mentors, consider these Pre-requisites: 

Pre-requisites:
  1. General goals or at the very least curiosities and interests. Something has to drive your ambition to be mentored. It can not be"I was hoping you could tell what I am supposed to do."
  2. Acceptance of your responsibilities as a mentee and being prepared to help the mentor
  3. Actively networking to clarify your goals and meeting more people, some of whom could be mentors 
Meeting people, interesting people in every facet of your life is the best strategy to find mentors. Your church, your alumni association, your professional trade group, your hobby club are all potent sources for mentors. You will meet and hear about people who seem to have a greater idea about your area of interest or your career path than you do. Connect with those who seem like mentor candidates and explore the process. Be introduced to other candidates by seeking referrals from your trusted colleagues and associates. "I am interested in (subject/ambition/organization), who do you think could help me understand it better?"

As someone who has been fortunate to be mentored by many and to have been given the privilege of mentoring others. It is a process that always yields more than I have invested. As a mentee as a mentor it is the most reward ing thing I have ever done. 

Make it a priority, find a new mentor that helps you answer a meaningful question and pushes you to become better. 

Thanks for reading. John

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3 thoughts on “Finding the right mentor—for me”

  1. I am glad this is helpful. Now go out and find a mentor that is right for you. It is probably someone you know but not well. Cheers John

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