So who needs a mentor?

Well, we all do, actually...This piece was prompted by a great post on LinkedIn from Catalina Flore , and the ensuing discussion. Catalina asked me "What would you say to a professional who mentions that they had not a chance to meet a good mentor?"

There has been more written about mentoring than I can remember, and the question made me think about some of the challenges facing us even when we know we need a mentor, and are not sure how to find one. I guess it is useful here to differentiate between mentor, coach and manager (and this will probably generate much argument).  I like to keep things simple, so I see them as follows:

A manager is someone who works with us on our performance at our work – the ‘What?’, if you like. A coach is someone who helps us become progressively better at the job – the ‘How?’ of our profession. And a mentor is someone who helps us step outside the narrow job role, and think about the purpose and meaning of what we do, both in work and outside it. This is the ‘Why?’ of life, and is what makes a mentor so important to all of us – without clarity of purpose, we become aimless and dissatisfied.

Finding a mentor – more importantly, finding the right mentor – is of necessity time-consuming. If we want someone to help us clarify purpose, their technical expertise at our job won’t be enough, and we certainly don’t want someone who just tells us what to do. Manager and coach are not what we seek. Finding someone who can guide us toward an optimum future for ourselves requires us to think about who might be right, to explore the suggestion, and then to make a decision.

So, how do we go about it?

We can seek out a mentor for ourselves. One method I have used in the past is to identify someone who role-models behaviours or achievements I admire, and I have approached them and asked if they would consider being a mentor for me. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they cannot do it, for any number of reasons. Most people will think seriously about it before committing.

Alternatively, someone else might approach a potential mentor for us. I have said to members of my teams throughout my career, ‘If you see someone you don’t know, yet whom who you think would be a good mentor for you, let me know, and I can approach them for you’. This is a role that a line manager or coach can play with good effect. They will sometimes have more influence than the potential mentee, and may even know personally the proposed mentor. Certainly, they will know enough about their colleague to either gently suggest that the proposal is inappropriate, or to approach the proposed mentor with informed confidence.

It is helpful to remember, too, that we can sometimes have a mentor without realising it. 'Accidental' mentors abound in our lives. The most commonly cited is a great teacher at school. Many of us carry positive habits, ideas and attitudes instilled in us from schooldays, and we should not ignore the mentoring effect inherent in teaching behaviours, and the same if true of great managers and leadership figures.

One of my favourite concepts is reverse mentoring. Whilst it may sound strange, it usually means mentoring of someone older or more experienced by a younger or less experienced person, who has a specific understanding. For example, a Baby Boomer like myself could be reverse-mentored by a younger person in the mindset and values of Generation X. That would not be solely coaching – it would be schooling me in the thinking habits and motivations behind Gen X’s worldview, to achieve understanding. The purpose might be to enable me to handle more effectively, and more confidently, the presence of four or five generations in the workforce.

And although we may not recognise it, some 'mentoring' can be inverted - cognitive or behavioural examples that are the opposite of what we want. We could call it ‘negative mentoring’, perhaps, as opposed to the reverse mentoring mentioned above. That would almost certainly be accidental or inadvertent, as few people would want to be a bad example. Yet every day we see negative behaviours from which we gain impressions and examples. When repeated, they can form a framework for behaviour we deliberately avoid. Demotivational managers, lazy or annoying colleagues, unreliable suppliers: all of them can help prompt alternate habits of our own which enable other people to feel relaxed and confident about us.

The most important element to remember above everything else, is that mentoring – because is about the ‘Why?’ of our lives - is a deeply personal relationship. There needs to be a rapport between mentor and mentee, and without it we can fall prey to power imbalances, inappropriate guidance, or simple disaffection. Mentoring is a complex concept, and like everything worthwhile, requires time and effort to achieve. We cannot expect a mentor to seek us out. We cannot expect the first person we ask to be the perfect mentor. We cannot demand from someone else a serious commitment to our future well-being without committing to it ourselves. We must take responsibility for deciding what we need from a mentor, seeking possible mentors, and arranging for them to be approached.

So, there are a few thoughts, and I would be VERY pleased to hear others’ thoughts and ideas. After all, it is only by hearing and considering different opinions that we can explore the many options for a fulfilling life.


Written by John Mark Williams, CEO at The Institute of Leadership.


 Want to see more posts like this?

Get notified of great stories from our community, top tips and up and coming webinars & events.

Be recognised and get ahead.

Join our community of over 50,000 leaders from around the world.