While a lot of people talk about the importance of mentoring, nothing really works, nobody has figured it out, none of the existing program models have rigorous enough measures and all any program can really do is make people feel better.
Contrast this with the fact that a great many people are desperate for mentoring even if they have a fundamentally different perspective on mentoring. Most don’t have a mentor (and never have), but they want a mentor to help them figure out how things work so they could get on with actually accomplishing their goals.
Situations like this are oddly curious and highly problematic. On one hand, there’s a sense that mentoring is some mystical, uncontrollable, unpredictable relationship between a “senior” and “junior” member and as a result, the “seniors” may simply be encouraged to have coffee with their mentees, and hope for the best. If some people get “mentored” and others don’t, that’s okay because nobody has really figured it out anyway. On the other hand, there are some junior level people who actually do want help, aren’t getting it, and are not as productive as they could be because of it. This is terribly inefficient, and leaves too many people “just trying to figure it out on their own.”
If this is you (either as the “junior” or “senior” in this situation), you should re-think your approach to mentoring. Re-thinking your approach to mentoring requires the acknowledgment of one very flawed assumption — that mentoring is a reliable and valid construct. Maybe even the use of the word “mentoring” may have a negative impact on you because either: 1) the term “mentoring” means so many different things to different people that it’s meaningless, and 2) using the all-encompassing term “mentoring” focuses “seniors” on connecting with a person instead of identifying their needs.
Whenever we believe that something is critically important but nobody agrees on what it means, there’s going to be a wide variety of problems. In other words, whenever someone says they need a mentor, they should be asked exactly what they mean. Answers may range from a parental figure in their professional life to having coffee once a year.
So instead of talking about “mentoring” and hoping that everyone means the same thing (when we know we don’t), let’s shift our thinking and our language to focus on two questions: 1) What do I need? & 2) How can I get my needs met?
Most people have a combination of the following needs:
Many professionals are looking for help learning how to manage time, resolve conflicts, administer projects and make strategic decisions about service commitments.
You may need support in dealing with the common stress and pressures of life, as things can get very complicated sometimes.
A Sense Of Community
You may find yourself seeking both an intellectual and/or social community where you feel a true sense of belonging. After all, we don’t live in a silo, now do we?!
The structure of your job likely provides the least accountability for the activity that is most valued. In order to avoid getting caught up in the daily chaos, the vast majority of working professionals need someone to help hold them accountable.
You also need to cultivate relationships with people who are invested in your success. By that, I mean more “senior” professionals who are willing to use their power to advocate for your best interests behind closed doors.
Access To Networks
Because knowledge isn’t produced in isolation, it’s critical for you to connect with others to discuss potential collaborations, navigate bureaucracies and access opportunity structures that might not be immediately apparent to you.
Project Specific Feedback
You will also need to regularly communicate with people who can provide substantive comments on your proposals, manuscript drafts, and new ideas.
This is critical for your development as both an employee & a leader within your organization.
This can apply to anyone as it is extremely important to have the space to discuss and process unique and individual experiences without being invalidated, questioned, devalued and/or disrespected.
Having this wide variety of needs is perfectly normal anytime you transition from one status to another in your career. And no one person can meet all your needs. Having talked to hundreds and hundreds of people who happen to be professionals, there is one thing that always rings true — when people start identifying their needs, asking for the specific types of assistance that will meet those needs, and pro-actively cultivating an ever-expanding network of information, support, contacts and referrals they become more productive.
In other words, when you shift from a person-based to a needs-based framework, it frees you from the search for “a mentor” and focuses you instead on identifying your needs & getting them met. This shift acknowledges that it’s normal to have an evolving set of needs throughout your career and that those needs are most effectively, efficiently, and comprehensively met in the context of a broad network of information, community, support, accountability, and ongoing feedback.
I hope you get the clarity to shift your thinking about mentoring from the desperate search for a mentor to an empowered reflection on what you need and actually finding it.