We’ve all heard repeatedly how important “mentoring” is to our professional success, but if you scratch the surface and ask people what exactly they mean by “mentoring,” you will find a wide range of responses. Too many new people imagine that they will have a single guru-like “mentor” who will sense their needs, generously dispense wisdom, care deeply about their success, and gently guide them along the path to be promoted. Since it rarely happens like that, this week I’d like to focus on: Looking For A Single Guru-Mentor.
The problem with the idea that you will find one guru-mentor is that you will always have a wide variety of needs and it is not only impossible but also problematic for all of those needs to be met by one (and only one) person. For example, if you are fairly new to your position, you may have some combination of the following needs:
You are looking for help in learning how to manage time, resolve conflicts, administer projects, organize your office space, lead efficiently and make strategic decisions about service commitments.
If you are a new employee or newly promoted, you are in the midst of a significant identity and role transition. As a result, you may need support in dealing with the common stress and pressures of transitioning.
A Sense Of Community
You may find yourself seeking both an intellectual and/or social community where you feel a true sense of belonging.
The structure of your job likely provides the least accountability for the activity that is most valued (research, writing, and leadership). In order to avoid getting caught up in the daily chaos, the vast majority of people need some form of an accountability system.
You also need to cultivate relationships with people who are invested in your success at your job. By that, I mean senior members 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 the business landscape, and access opportunity structures that might not be immediately apparent to you.
You will also need to regularly communicate with people who can provide substantive comments on your ideas and/or presentations.
I’m saying this to illustrate the point that no one person could (or should) fulfill all of these different elements in your life! Expecting a single mentor to transition you will inevitably lead to disappointment, over-dependence on the advice of 1 person, and feelings of loneliness. All gurus are human; they make mistakes (just like you do!). Therefore, relying exclusively on 1 person can put you at unnecessary risk and leave you with many unmet needs.
This week, I want to encourage you to fundamentally rethink the idea of “mentoring” by asking yourself: What do I need, and what is the most strategic and efficient way to get it? Then, instead of looking for 1 all-knowing guru-mentor, you will start to realize that there are many different ways to get information, support, feedback, and advice. We can meet our professional development, emotional support, community, and accountability needs by connecting with professionals, peers, friends, books, and online communities. For example, it’s probably more effective to hire a professional house cleaner than to take an entire day to clean up yourself when you could’ve been using that time to do something else productive. That example doesn’t just work at home, but also at work – it might be easier to get someone to review or edit your work than for you to do it yourself, (especially because you might miss something). It also probably makes more sense to meet with friends for emotional support than to expect it from your co-workers. And, it’s far more meaningful to join a group for accountability purposes than to ask your mentor to call you every week and make sure you’re making progress on your goals.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some needs (ex: sponsorship, access to opportunities, project-specific feedback, etc.) that only senior people in your field and/or department can meet. The trick is to know the difference so that you focus the limited time you have with senior mentors on the things only they can provide for you while finding alternative ways to meet your other needs.
If There’s No Guru, Then What’s A Person To Do?
Instead of focusing on any 1 particular person, try to imagine an extensive web of support that you create by identifying your needs and proactively getting them met:
- A broad array of mentors & sponsors that are located within and beyond your reach.
- An excellent coach(or therapist, if need be) to help you transition
- A local and extended network of friends who you can rely on for social support and stress relief
- A group of scholars or professionals in your field with whom you can share thoughts and ideas
- A supportive community that meets your unique accountability needs and celebrates your successes
In a perfect world, your network would be organized in such a way as to welcome and support you during any professional transition you make. In reality, it will most likely be your responsibility to identify your needs and find ways & people to meet them. Along with that responsibility comes the realization that you have tremendous power (even if it doesn’t always feel like it). In other words, you don’t have to be dependent on a single guru-mentor because you have the power to create a network of support that is populated by people who are invested in your success. This collective approach will enable you to feel supported before, during, and after problems arise in your life. It will provide you with opportunities, connections, and reference groups that extend far beyond your current employment situation. And most importantly, it will serve as a buffer to decrease any alienation, loneliness, and stress that you may feel at your current job.
I hope this week brings you the energy to re-think your assumptions about mentoring, the clarity to identify what YOU need right now, and the energy to seek new and creative ways to get all of your needs met!