Dwayne Allen Thomas

The Cross-Examined Life

You vs. Your Mentor

Navigating the hurdles on the path to a beneficial mentoring relationship.

Posted Apr 29, 2020

 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Public Domain
Source: Creator: Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II Credit: 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Public Domain

You were mentored from birth. When you were an infant, your parents introduced you to their world through things like food and language. Around age five or six, you started developing your first true friendships. Over the next 15 years, these friendships would allow you to sample the adult roles you would eventually take on. By the time you were eight, you were in school, learning values shared by your state or nation. Coaches, music teachers, troop leaders, tutors, Aunt Bunny. You may not consider everyone who could be included in this list a mentor, but all of them, in some way large or small, helped shape the person you are today.

Despite the large number of possible mentors, research suggests your parents had the biggest influence on your choice of career. Worldwide, parents and their children tend to choose careers of similar social standing. In the United States, if your parent was a lawyer, legislator, fisher, or textile machine operator, you are more likely than the average person to be one as well. One explanation for these observations is that we learn about our parents’ careers at the dinner table. Their friends and co-workers drop by the house. You go to the company picnic. You’re comfortable, and in the case of a complicated skill set, you have a years-long head start on your future peers. After all, you’re already part of the community.

But let’s say you’re not. And I’m not talking about the morass that is the definition of the term “first-generation student.” Let’s say you’re anyone entering a profession with no connection to the field other than your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. All you have is what you brought with you: what you learned about yourself while growing up, and enough information learned in school to understand every third word your new colleagues say.

One day, a co-worker pulls you aside and tells you the three inches of hair you grew above your top lip to get dates is seen by your bosses as a sign of rebellion. Then you’re told the skirt you’re wearing is too long. And too short. In the same day. By the same person. After years of fitting in, you’re suddenly out of place. You have to adjust. And you have a choice: Go it alone, or get a guide.  

This guide is what we typically think of when we hear the word mentor — an individual with expertise who can help develop your career. Mentors serve as coaches, role models, and support systems, providing lessons that help to enhance one’s professional development. People with mentors tend to experience faster career progress and are more satisfied and committed to their professions than those without one. Mentors also benefit from these relationships by learning about new issues or technology or from a sense of satisfaction from helping someone grow into a leader in their field.

Before you can have a relationship with a mentor, you have to find one. And you’re in luck: You heard about a program. You sign up. You’re assigned a mentor. You meet for the first time in a room full of people you don’t know. You introduce yourself. Your mentor introduces their trophy case, rattling off a list of accomplishments you didn’t know existed. Then they ask about you. You recite your well-rehearsed elevator pitch, trailing off as you realize the little 20-person club you belong to doesn’t compare to what you just heard. They’re encouraging, but then your mentor’s friend stops to say hi and introduces you to their trophy case.

At this point, you’re wondering whether you belong in the same room with them. But then, the program ends. The organizers tell you it’s your responsibility to contact your mentor. And you think … they must be busy, right? Will they even accept your call? What would you say to them if they did accept your call? And they want you to read a book? How is this supposed to help you again? You know what? This isn’t working for you.  

What we have here is a failure to communicate. The organization waited until the worst possible moment to tell you what’s expected of you. It also failed to convince you of the value of its program. Worse, it did nothing to make you feel like you belong. Meanwhile, your mentor forgot how they felt when they were you. Had they remembered their own discomfort, they might have taken steps to minimize yours. Concurrently, you failed to speak up. You didn’t express your fears to your mentor or the organization. Perhaps you told a friend, but you didn’t tell someone who knew what to expect and could help ease your fears. The end result: You left, believing you could do better on your own.

But let’s say you didn’t leave. Why did you stay? Perhaps you started with a strong interest in being mentored. Maybe you wanted to leave but decided to take a chance. Or, quite possibly, you hit it off with your mentor because you had an instant rapport.

Rapport describes a relationship characterized in part by mutual understanding or empathy, making communication easy. We often seek out people with a shared history because we don’t have to explain our feelings to them. They just know. Seeing a trace of yourself in your mentor helps you feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.

Zoom out. What does that look like? Often, it means mentor and mentee will share the same race, gender, ethnicity, or initial economic circumstances. The obvious benefit to this arrangement is that it helps the mentee answer the question, “How might people in this business treat me based on my immutable characteristics?” However, this arrangement also has a downside.

One of the benefits of having a mentor is that the mentee gets plugged into the mentor’s network. In the United States, the overwhelming majority of people in leadership positions are white men. Our tendency to connect with “someone like us” can therefore replicate the same lack of social diversity many companies are fighting to change. But let’s say you’re lucky - your organization recognizes this issue and has paired leadership with people who don’t look like them. What’s likely to happen?

Eggshells.

Research suggests that we initially find social diversity threatening. We tend to want to stick with members of our own group. It’s safer. We don’t know what “those people” might do to us. Because we form groups easily, those people could be virtually anyone. Someone of a different race. Someone of a different gender. Someone with different tastes in clothes, music, food, hair, perfume, or books. Someone who happened to be on the wrong side of a coin flip.

We expect to be judged negatively by members of another group. In some cases, we expect to be physically harmed by people who remind us of someone who has harmed us or a member of our group. We don’t talk freely because we don’t want to offend. We stop sharing our opinions when someone asks for more information than we’re willing to explain. When issues arise, we answer the question of why using stereotypes as explanations instead of asking the other person directly. Ultimately, we avoid those people.

Distrust doesn’t bode well for a mentorship. It’s one thing to be paired with a racist, sexist, or jerk. It’s another to mistake a person who sees potential in you and wants to help you for someone who wants to ruin your career. But how can you tell the difference when your relationship starts from a place of mistrust? When you’re new in the field? And you’re being asked to adopt a new normal? From someone who has years of experience you don’t?

You need time. One estimate suggests it takes on average 50 to 90 hours to become a casual friend and 200 to become close friends. If you don’t trust someone because they belong to a different group, you might need more. For someone who’s highly prejudiced against a group you belong to, no amount of time may be enough. And even if you’ve known someone a long time, it may be hard to determine whether they consider you a friend. But, given enough time, even KKK members have found friendship with someone from another race.

Usually, this time accumulates through shared experience. When we’re younger, there are plenty of chances to gain this experience, but as we become adults, work fills the time that used to be occupied by whatever you were doing between classes. People rarely play cards at lunch after graduation. This is one reason someone I met recently suggested I take up golf. It takes hours to play a game — plenty of time to get to know the people playing with you. Plenty of time to learn about and from a mentor who may not immediately click with you.

You were mentored from birth. But unlike when you were an infant, you have some choice in who mentors you. It can be an uncomfortable journey, trying to form a friendship with someone who is more experienced than you, especially if they don’t fit neatly into a group you belong to. But who knows? You might learn that you have more in common than you think.