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Find the Mentorship You Need (Not Just What You Want)

To accomplish your goals, you have to do the work.

Source: Cody Engel/Unsplash
Source: Cody Engel/Unsplash

At some point over the past few years, you have probably heard or thought to yourself that you need to find a mentor. Mentorship, that trusted wise counselor and advisor who can help you with your career and life path, point out opportunities, and push you to find deeper meaning and connection, has become a bit of a fad in recent years in everything from corporations to non-profits to education. And while these efforts typically are well-intentioned, few stop to ask, what is the best way to enter into these relationships in order to take best advantage of the emotional, mental, and psychological labor that is expended, not to mention the social and organizational capital?

Traditionally, we think of mentoring as occurring between an older, wiser, more experienced mentor, someone with an impressive title and resume, and a younger, novice mentee who knows little to nothing about life and work. But this should not be the way that you approach these relationships. Don’t get seduced by title or position. Often these people have the least amount of time to invest in you, nor are they necessarily the best person to help you reach your goals. And, that older, wiser, more experienced mentor with the impressive title and resume needs mentorship, too! Learning and growing is a lifelong process.

Over the past twenty-plus years, I have spent a lot of time researching and leading mentoring programs, serving as a mentor and a mentee, and talking to professionals of various ages and experience levels about the importance of seeking out mentorship. Repeatedly, what I hear from people, especially young professionals, is something like this: “That’s great, I know I need to find mentors and sponsors and others to support me on my career path. But I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to find those people, and how to ask them to serve in those roles with me. No one seems to want to do it, or if they do, they don’t seem to have the time because they’re so busy with their own stuff.”

Fair enough. It is hard. And many people either don’t know how to do it, or don’t do it well, or, truly, don’t have the time to do it. Because mentoring, when it’s done well, is an investment of time, of resources, of emotional and mental labor. And most people are plenty busy with their own stuff, their own goals and career paths, to spend a whole lot of time helping you with yours.

Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek it out! But it does mean that you need to be intentional and strategic about how you seek out that support. You have to own your growth and development, or else you can never expect anyone to walk beside you on that path. You have to set goals and pursue them, and work to build effective relationships with those people who are in a position to help you achieve those goals. You have to do the work.

Because mentoring is based in individual personal experience, we each bring different perspectives to these relationships. It’s normal to enter into mentoring relationships informally, thinking, well, I really like this person and respect them and their title, so clearly I will learn a lot from them. Unfortunately, that casual attitude can lead to disastrous results for even the most well-intentioned mentoring partners. Mentoring doesn’t have to happen as part of a formal program; in fact, most mentoring relationships don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it should be taken lightly. Mentoring is a strategic intervention. And, it must be honored as such.

We used to think about mentoring as a strictly one-to-one relationship; i.e., one mentor for every mentee. These relationships developed out of apprenticeship models dating all the way back to the time of The Odyssey, where an individual was hand-picked for development and opportunity. What you should be thinking about is how to develop a network of mentors, also known as a mentoring constellation or a personal board of directors. These networks serve several purposes. First, it’s important to remember that mentoring relationships are, inherently, power relationships. Having a robust network of mentors supporting your growth and development helps ensure that no one person has undue influence over you and your decisions.

A robust network of mentors also ensures that you’re seeking out and inviting in diverse perspectives and points of view as you work towards your next steps, through relationships with both strong and weak ties. These people add value by broadening your network and your possible opportunities, including your opportunity to build additional deep relationships. And, they broaden the voices that you hear.

Finally, because mentoring relationships are goal-oriented and experienced-based, it just makes sense that you would have more than one mentor supporting you. Not everyone is going to be a great mentor to support all your goals. For example, I would be a good mentor for someone who wants to grow their career path in higher education, especially on the administrative side of the house. But I would not be a great mentor for someone looking to build a faculty career, and probably would not be the best mentor for someone working in corporate America. And this is the essence of getting strategic about both your goals and who, or what, you identify to help you to meet those goals.

A strategic intervention also means that mentoring isn’t always the right intervention. It can be tempting to jump straight to mentoring as a positive goal or next step, especially in today’s climate that tends to privilege mentoring as inherently positive. Sometimes what you need is a mentor. But sometimes you need a different relationship type, like coaching or counseling. Or you might need to take a class or earn a certification. If you haven’t done the important strategic work of goal-setting and getting clear on what you need to meet those goals, then there is a good chance that you will pick the wrong strategy to get you there. And that’s how many mentoring relationships end up failing.

So, how do you find great mentorship? Start with these four steps.

  1. Set some learning goals. Take some time to think intentionally and strategically about your gaps and your goals. Remember, these should be things that you are going to work on whether or not someone walks beside you on that path. Where do you want to be in six months—one year?
  2. Assess your needs. Once you have created learning goals, think about what you need to help you to accomplish them. Is it a mentor? A coach? Do you need to take a class or gain some tangible experience? Make sure the strategy you are seeking meets your needs and your goals.
  3. Examine your network. For those goals that would benefit from mentorship, look around at the people you are already connected with who could serve in those roles. Remember, mentoring is experience-based and not everyone is well-suited to mentor you for your goals. Who has experience that could benefit your learning and growth?
  4. Build relationships. Most importantly, do the work to build the relationships that you need. Mentoring isn’t about sitting around waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder. You seek people out, show up consistently, ask for feedback and guidance, and look for ways that you can add value. Your growth and development is your responsibility, no one else’s. After all, if you don’t care about it, why should they?
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