“Sometimes you can’t pay it back, so you just pay it forward”
The world is a confusing and complex place. Most of us do our best to navigate it in the best manner possible in order to bring success to ourselves, protect our loved ones and benefit to the world.
One of the best ways to navigate this complex world and your career is to find a mentor or to build a mentor network. Mentoring is not a new concept and in fact, originates from Homer’s Odyssey in which the education of Odysseus’ son is entrusted to his friend Mentor. Despite this, it has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity as a number of studies have shown its benefits and some of the most successful people in all walks of life have attributed their success to mentors.
Good mentors can help you be your best self by offering a point of reference for your decisions, providing guidance and advice and pushing you when needed. Good mentees can create the framework and relationship in which these mentors can succeed.
A mentor relationship is an informal one that happens naturally and is based on the mentor having the best interest of the mentee at heart and the mentee realising that the mentor can give them valuable assistance. This relationship can be the key to achieving and surpassing goals especially when the relationship has some of the characteristics outlined below.
Mentors should by their nature bring a wealth of knowledge that can be utilised and help mentees succeed. They should have lived and worked through some of the challenges being experienced or expected by the mentees. Importantly, on top of this experience, they should have targeted domain or industry knowledge that can shorten the learning curve for mentees tremendously in these areas.
What can be of extreme value in a mentor network is having mentors with various competencies and strengths removed from the mentees who can expose them to new ways of thinking and ideas from an array of domains. Mentees should look for those people who can fill in gaps in their own skillset. By building a diversity in their mentorship, they can enjoy a more rounded perspective and pick and choose the best advice for them to grow and succeed.
Understanding of the individual
A good mentor will know their mentees as individuals and know their strengths and weaknesses. Often, they can be the ones who are most honest about weaknesses, but they will provide constructive feedback on how they can improve. They will push their mentees to maximise their strengths and may be the ones to guide them to alleviate their weaknesses. They will understand their mentees as people beyond just their career aspirations and professional skills and thus be able to provide the most relevant advice to them as an individual rather than based on your job title or CV.
Mentees should be open to this constructive criticism and in a similar way understand their mentor and how they communicate, what their stories and examples truly mean. It is possible to be quite targeted in enabling a mentor to build an understanding by providing information about one’s life outside work, having prepared questions unique to their situation and treating it as a two-way relationship rather than just eliciting advice.
Being a mentor is an informal relationship, but it is still one that requires investment, not financial but rather an investment of time and an investment in the success of the individual. These relationships grow organically and are about paying it forward rather than money. The benefit for the mentor comes from the taking pride in the mentee and learning themselves from the relationship. (Of course, sending a thank you following a success to a mentor who may have aided you is never going to be a problem) The best mentors are willing to lend their ear and grab a coffee as they are engaged in the success of the mentee if a mentor does not have this engagement the relationship will fall away over time.
On the other side, being a mentee is not a passive role. When you have a mentor, it’s your job to define your own goals, cultivate the relationship, seek out advice, attend meetings or events you’re invited to, and so on. Both mentor and mentee should gradually build a relationship where they can hold each accountable for this investment.
A mentor quickly becomes a confidant for mentees and provides a safe option to ask the “stupid” questions we all have through our lives. The best listen and try to truly understand the issues facing their mentee rather than focusing on what they themselves are going to say next. By incorporating active listening they can ensure they are not simply projecting onto the mentee and instead can look to provide the most applicable advice. Acting as a sounding board for ideas in some cases they do not give actual advice but by asking probing questions help their mentee come to the conclusion him or herself.
On the part of the mentee they have to be willing to open up and have patience when looking to explain, this allows the mentor to gain the best understanding and so be in the best position to provide advice. Additionally, they should not always follow the advice of a mentor but should listen and reflect on suggestions and thoughts provided by their mentor. By listening and drawing out the crux of the advice provided they can mould it and apply it as best they see fit for themselves.
Today, the most successful people build relationships and gather intelligence from a wide variety of people in all industries and age brackets. Ideas come from all avenues and so mentors should look to continue to grow their own network and thus improve their knowledge and provide connection and networking opportunities for their mentee.
Mentees can expose their mentors to their own networks and new opportunities. It is often a meeting of generations or separate domains and so this relationship provides networking opportunities to both parties. What is important is for both sides to have the trust and investment in each other to open their network to one another.
Mentors are people who give guidance and advice while leveraging their own experiences. They don’t and can’t make the decisions for their mentees, but they can provide the competitive advantage along the learning curve which decides success or failure.
While they are informal relationships the best ones have some common characteristics on the part of the mentor and the mentee that enables both sides to provide value to the other and draw the most benefit from the relationship.
My advice would be to evaluate your mentor relationships for the characteristics above, taking action to improve upon the existing ones and to build new ones will enable both mentors and mentees to enjoy a productive interdependency.
The world is a confusing and complex place and having mentors won’t change that fact, but the mentor relationship can provide the marginal gains along the learning curve that can lead to mentee success and allow mentors the opportunity to adapt to a changing environment and pay their experiences forward.
Check out my previous articles here.