GETTING INTENTIONAL ABOUT MENTORING RELATIONSHIPS
We often hear people attribute their success at work, and life in general, to the mentoring they received along the way. Many of us have had experiences with people in our lives who really made a difference…a parent, teacher, friend, colleague, spouse. We feel incredibly fortunate that these people came into our lives – we feel lucky. In many cases, it feels like these relationships happen by chance, not by design.
I would like to talk about how we can become more intentional about getting (and giving) mentoring support. How can we be thoughtful and strategic about this process? A lot of academic research has been done about mentoring, some of which I think is important to share. These ideas help us create a mental framework or structure that can guide us as we seek out support. In this post we’ll explore:
- Why you need more than one mentor
- What types of mentoring support you need
- How to cultivate mentoring relationships
DEVELOPMENTAL NETWORKS—WE NEED MORE THAN ONE MENTOR IN OUR LIVES!
When you think of “mentor” what image comes to mind? Traditionally, a “mentor” has been portrayed as a person with more senior status, with the power and wisdom to guide his or her protege throughout her career. I think this notion of a mentor as hero actually does more harm than good. There are three complications with this mental model:
- Diverse: In reality, mentors come in a variety of forms and from all parts of our lives. They can be colleagues inside and outside of our organization. They can be peers who at a similar professional level. They can be our employees. They are people who care about us and our future. Mentors are willing to share their time, talent, and/or connections to help us grow and advance. We don’t have to narrow the pool of people who can and do provide mentoring support.
- Mutually Beneficial: High quality mentoring relationships are typically mutually beneficial — both people are learning from each other. When we let go of the hierarchical model, we can see that everyone brings something to the table. Who is mentor and who is mentee can often be fluid…on any given day you could be on either side of the relationship. By changing the focus from power and status to talent and experience, we all benefit.
- Multiple: The notion that ONE really good hero would address all our mentoring needs is….well, it’s just ludicrous. There is not a person on this planet who can be all things to a protege. It is simply false and actually scares people away from getting and giving mentoring support. Women, in particular, will shy away from this label of “mentor.” They take the role seriously and it feels like a tremendous responsibility. In addition, they often doubt their own worthiness of being a mentor despite significant life accomplishments. (Perhaps we’ll address that issue in another blog post!)
We all need a set of mentors, who bring different perspectives and expertise. In the research, they call this a “developmental network.” To be clear, a developmental network is NOT your social network (all those people you on the internet machine that you are connected to, friends with, or following). Your developmental network is a small set of people who are committed to your career advancement and willing to offer a variety of different types of mentoring support. So, what are those types?
TYPES OF MENTORING SUPPORT—WE HAVE DIFFERENT NEEDS!
As we navigate our career, there are three main types of mentoring support that we will need. Each mentor may provide only one type OR all types of support. Again, it isn’t critical that any given mentor provide everything, particularly if you have a set of people supporting you.
- Sponsorship: This kind of mentoring support focuses on making sure you have access to the resources you need and that you are visible to those who make decisions. A mentor may introduce you to specific people, invite you to meetings or events, and/or ask you to take on a specific project or make a presentation. She does this to make sure you are not overlooked and to put her name/reputation forward on your behalf.
- Coaching: This mentoring is focused on helping you get the work done. As we grow, we are continually taking on new challenges, often doing work that is not familiar or comfortable to us. A mentor who is coaching you will help you learn how to do your new responsibilities. She will not do it for you (or at least she shouldn’t because then it is no longer mentoring) but, instead, guide you through it. She’ll help you create structure, a plan, develop new tactics, etc.
- Psychosocial Support: We all need people who will cheer for us when things are going well and cry with us when they aren’t. Mentors who provide this kind of support are in it with you emotionally. She might take you to coffee, or lunch…or drinks to just listen. She will get your text and respond with the right emoji or, even better, gif.
As you think about who you would like in your developmental network, make sure that you have all three categories covered. Additionally, make sure you have mentors who actually know how to do what you are trying to learn. The implication: as you evolve as a human and professional, your developmental network changes, too. For better or worse, it is a lifelong process.
Okay, okay. I know your next question: How do I find mentors?
IDENTIFYING MENTORS—WE NEED TO MEET NEW PEOPLE
In many ways, you don’t “find” a mentor. It is not like there is a “Mentor Store” where you can just choose among pre-packaged options. A mentor is, by the definition I propose, based on a relationship and is a personal commitment. A mentor is invested in you and your future…and you are invested in her.
- Identify Needs: I suggest your first step is to identify what types of people you need – what experiences, what connections, what personalities? Once you have a general sense, you can begin to identify possible mentors. You can do this by making sure you are continually meeting new people…people at work, at networking events, at volunteer commitments, in your neighborhood, at your church, etc. Remember, mentors come in all different forms. Be open to the possibilities. You can also reach out to your social network and ask for suggestions and introductions.
- Cultivate the Relationships: If you meet someone who seems interesting, you can invite her to coffee. Yes, just invite the person to a conversation. It could be a general conversation about her career path, or it could be about a specific question you have. You aren’t asking her to be a mentor. Initially, you are just getting to know each other and seeing if there is a rapport and fit. If it goes well, you can ask her if it would be okay for you to reach out again. Remember, meaningful mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial, which means you offer your assistance as well. It is a two-way street.
- Quality Conversations: It is important, as your relationships with your mentors evolve, that you create space for high quality conversations to occur. For me, this means creating opportunities for each person to be fully themselves. To be as honest and vulnerable and real as possible. We are all different…we have different lived experiences so we cannot assume that our reality is our mentor’s reality. (Or the other way around!) High quality conversation allow those differences to become sources of mutual learning and growth. Because different mentors offer different types of support, the depth of the relationships will vary. But, mentoring cannot occur when either, or both, parties feel invisible to each other.
I hope this post helps you be less intimidated by the “finding a mentor” process and begin to think more intentionally. A network of mentors, who have different experiences, perspectives and expertise is an important part of your success.
In my next blog post, I will discuss how to be a good mentor! We aren’t born with this…it is a skill we develop through practice. I will share my philosophy and approach.