The idea of mentorship is age-old. In fact, it’s recorded that Plato thought of learning from older men as valuable for an understanding of his personal path forward: “There is nothing I like better than conversing with aged men. For I regard them as travelers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire whether the way is smooth and easy or rugged and difficult.”
Who’s Your Mentor?
The complexities of life demand that we have guidance and mechanisms for feedback that can help us navigate our way. A critical, but underutilized way to learn and grow is having a mentor. Many young professionals, in a quick and competitive environment, work ambitiously, even guardedly. It’s easy to remain singular in thought and effort, but this type of application doesn’t consider perspectives. A mentor, with his or her unique experiences, can add value by providing insight into a situation, a decision, a particular need, both professionally and personally.
I recall for myself that as time passed and my responsibilities increased so too did the level of my decision making. I had informal advocates. I had more experienced friends and allies who would provide an ear for my woes or advice on occasion. What I didn’t have was a more formal relationship within someone who I could call a mentor.
Over time, I realized the need to formally seek out mentors for various areas of my life. The formality was important because friends more often than not told me what I wanted to hear, not what I needed to hear. I needed experience and perspective. I called a former principal who was once my boss to ask for help with personnel problem at work. I called a former superintendent when I need career advice. I called a former union president who I had worked with in the past to ask about how I could support teachers with a balance of hard but fair decisions that needed to be made about an educator in my school. Over time, I built a team of mentors that I could use when a given situation arises that I know they have been through and can offer wisdom before I go it alone. They know “whether the way is smooth and easy or rugged and difficult.”
Ask yourself who you have in your life currently who can be a mentor? Maybe it’s a friend who you underutilize, occasionally asking for advice but not in a direct way. Maybe you have someone within your organization who knows your current path and can offer formal advice to help you grow. The first step to defining a mentor/mentee relationship is to identify a few key people with the personal and professional experiences that can add value to yours. Let’s explore the benefits.
Benefits of Having a Mentor
“Watch the subtleties of the mentor.” ~Dan Cathy
With a desire to understand and gain a unique possibly different perspective, a mentor helps you see challenges clearer, hidden opportunities, and realities that may beyond your control. A mentor listens and asks thoughtful questions. Through Q/A sessions, often your confidence increases and life seems more in control.
Many times, after consulting a mentor, what seemed insurmountable or a dire situation, is blanketed with hope and possibility. It is also important to identify various mentors for the different aspects of your life. The person you may seek out for professional advice and guidance could be totally different than someone with whom you want to discuss the challenges of raising kids. Also, you may have someone who is a generalist, the wise sage who simply maintains that right attitude and has had a life worth hearing about, no matter what your current need may be.
The benefits of having a mentor are clear. 1. Gain confidence and control through Socratic dialogue. 2. Uncover possibilities through an analysis of a problem. 3. Gain wisdom from someone who has created footprints in the path that you now tread.
Books, classes, podcasts, and videos are great avenues for learning. In fact, we (Schoolhouse302) presented on the avenues of teaching and learning leadership using several of these as examples. But, mentors provide specificity through a two-way discussion that can’t be found by listening to a book on tape in your car. The give and take of thoughts and ideas is a valuable exchange. The first step is to ask. I have found that people are incredibly receptive, just be clear and up front.
Friends are often much more likely to tell you what you want to hear; that’s why defining the relationship is critical. Something as simple as a phone call or email with the following phrase: “John, hello Joe Jones here, I hope all is well. I was wondering if you were willing to meet up for a cup of coffee sometime soon. I’ve encountered some issues at work and I believe you could help give me some valuable insight. I’ve always admired your ability to handle and deal with some rather difficult circumstances.” Professionally, this approach yields tremendous results, due to honesty and candor. Notice that the situation was predefined—
“there’s a problem and I need your advice,” which is far different than “I need to get something off my chest.” Very important to note, ask your mentors for help before making a decision, otherwise, you’re asking for damage control, not insight.
If this is something you’ve been looking to do to add value to your life, do the following within the next forty-eight hours and let us know how it works out:
1. Decide on the area of your life that you would like to have a mentor. Be specific.
2. Identify a mentor(s).
3. Contact him or her, reach out, and set up a time to meet.