A few years ago, I made a major career leap. The jump made me a little nervous, so when I saw a “speed mentoring” event in celebration of International Women’s Day, I signed to be mentored. Imagine my shock when two friends, independently of each other, emailed the event organizer and suggested me as a mentor. I switched sides of the table and met with more than a dozen women over the course of an hour and a half. At the end of the night, everyone listed who they wanted to be matched with for a mentoring relationship and I was the most requested mentor of the night!
What is Mentoring?
Mentoring sounds like such a serious endeavor, but really all it means is giving advice to someone- using your own experiences to provide some perspective or providing specific skill guidance.
Who Is a Good Mentor?
You. You’ve lived. You’ve worked. You’ve loved. You’ve failed. You’ve been scared. You’ve succeeded. There is always someone coming up behind you who could use a hand. You’re never too young to mentor. You’re never too old to be mentored.
How Do You Find Someone Who Wants a Mentor?
The best mentoring relationships happen organically. Listen— find out who needs help you could provide. Ask a colleague to meet for coffee. Contact your alma mater’s career development office or your alumni network. Check your professional development association for opportunities. I’ve even connected with people through Twitter. Finding someone to mentor is as simple as deciding that you want to be a mentor.
How Do You Mentor?
Tell your story honestly. The more vulnerable you can be, the more helpful you’ll be. This is not the place to brag or gloss over the blood, sweat, and tears. Talk about the times you’ve failed. Talk about the risks you’ve taken. What people really want to hear is that it’s all going to be okay through proof & specific guidance, not platitudes.
How Much Time Does It Take to Mentor?
It’s up to you. It can be just one phone call or regular coffee meetings or even just an open invitation for continued contact by email. You’ll know what feels right.
What Do I Get Out Of This?
A former boss asked me to talk to a young woman who had contacted him. She was considering a job and location change and wanted to know more about my career path. I remembered so clearly what I had been like at her age- the assumptions I’d held about marriage and family getting blown apart, the wild freedom that took hold in that wake. So here I was, more than a decade later, still unmarried, still childless, with a wild, hairpin turn career story behind me and an uncertain journey before me. For this young woman to tell me that listening to me gave her hope was strangely comforting. Our actual lives provide the alternative narratives to popular mythologies that make life much harder than it needs to be. Even beyond that, in telling her my story, I learned more about myself and my journey no longer felt so crazy.
The Ultimate Secret Superpower
As I got more serious about building my own business, I once again sought a mentor, this time through the New York state Business Mentor program. I sent her everything I had about my business- financials, proposals, plans. The first thing she said to me when we spoke? “I don’t understand why you think you need a mentor.” And that’s the secret truth here- we know more than we think we do. It’s still important to find and be cheerleaders for each other, but you know more than you think you do.
Mentoring is one of the most powerful things you can do as a professional. We all need a “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, people we can call on when we need perspective or guidance. In offering to be that for someone else, you’re likely to find that you’ll add to your bench of cheerleaders, as well. It’s the ultimate virtuous circle.
You can learn more about Susanna on her website, and follow her on Twitter @SusannaDW.
Susanna, this is a great article. I’ve mentored numerous people throughout my somewhat short professional career, but within the same company, and have watched them grow to be promoted or move on to more rewarding careers that fit their personal and financial needs. It was truly a gratifying experience seeing someone take my advice and succeed. The interesting part now is that I am starting my own business and need that same help. Do you have any suggestions on where to find a mentor? My circle of personal and professional friends all work for corporations or established businesses, and have no entrepreneur friends, nor have I joined any professional networking groups yet (due to cost). What suggestions do you have?
Hi, Bill! I love that you’ve already had positive mentoring experiences. I’m actually in the same position as you- I am also an entrepreneur & I, too, have been aware of a lack of natural mentors. Here’s what I’ve discovered:
- Check with your state’s small business development office (every state has one- local branches are located on community college campuses). In NY state, we have an amazing program called Business Mentors NY that matches people online & offers some IRL workshops. Free!
- Depending on your industry, there may be meet up groups in your area (this is especially true for tech start ups). Check Meetup.com to see what’s available.
- Let your fingers do the walking & use the internet to find someone who’s in your space who you think is killing it. Send them an email & ask for 30 minutes of their time. Not unlike finding a therapist, it may take a few tries until you find someone who clicks. Persist.
- My next post will also talk about this in more depth. I interviewed a 26 year old entrepreneur about mentoring (as well as others) & I think you’ll find his advice helpful. Watch this space!
- And, lastly, Twitter is an amazing resource. Follow me (@susannadw) & let’s continue the conversation there.
Thanks for such a great article.
Mentorship is an opportunity to give back, to make sense of our own journey by letting others in and take advantage of our achievements, our learnings (I never use the word “failure”); share the journey from what were our dreams 15 years ago to the reality today.
I always tell my daughters: Open your eyes and ears, there is something to learn from someone every day, lessons that may have cost a lot to a person and you can get for free if you just pay attention.
This life these days moves so fast, competition is so intense; mentorship is needed more than ever.
Thanks for this article. I am just embarking on my journey as a formal mentor. You remind us that mentoring is also an organic process that can be informal as well. I would say that I have been mentoring and coaching all my life, but the expectations seem pretty high when someone actively seeks out a mentor. I’m looking forward to this journey.
Susanna, you mention in the article that you are never to young to be a mentor or too old to be mentored. What are your thoughts about being too old to be a mentor? In other words, does a lifetime of experience in your chosen career path allow you to provide relevant and constructive guidance to Millennials who may be experiencing a different work environment than those that have existed even 10 years ago?
Hi Susanna, this was an interesting and cool read. I am starting out my journey as a mentor and found this piece very encouraging and inspiring. I hope to be able to help someone else while they navigate through their professional life. I am sure it will be a gratifying experience that will enrich my own life too.
Thank you for the great blog. I am fully aligned with your assertion that being honest and revealing your own weaknesses, failures, and hurdles is of the utmost importance when communicating with a protege. Let your actions be the testament of your strengths and other people will recognize and verbalize what your strong points are so you can focus on what the protege really needs…guidance through challenges.
I was surprised a few years ago to be approached by someone to act as a formal mentor - I’m still seeking mentors myself, and I know I always will. i’m continually surprised about how much I learn from those I mentor, and how rewarding it is to be able to share my experience.
Susanna, this is a great example of the exact definition of mentoring. Sometimes we just need to speak out loud to understand our strengths!
I have found mentoring to be empowering both to the mentor and the one you are mentoring to.
Sussana, yours is a lovely and inspiring article for those, like me thinking in consciously becoming mentors.
As I read your lines, I, again, found the reason why I clicked the link and apply to start this journey.
While you work your way to help others find theirs, you are actually growing and getting to know yourself much much better.
Mentoring starts naturally, and usually you are doing it already; when people come to you for advice and a word of inspiration or consolation.
Thanks for sharing.