I take a look at mentors and the mentor-mentee relationship and ask whether they are still needed in a world where we are just 6 pixels away from anyone and a Google search away from finding answers.
This is the first in a series of of regular features where I look to see if something we take for granted is still relevant.
During the interview, Seth Godin talked about mentors and how he thinks finding a mentor is a “bunch of hype” and is stopping us from doing what we actually need to do; and instead, having a few peers who keep you accountable is a better option.
So, then, the question becomes: are mentors still relevant?
Before I get into this topic, I do want to say that having a mentor has been a personal struggle for me – I have always felt the need to have one, but have never taken that leap. It has always been one of those things I needed to do, but never have. Mostly not knowing really where to start.
But now, before I take that plunge, I have to ask myself – and you – is it still worth doing?
Let’s find out.
And, as always, I want to hear your take on this topics in the comments below, especially if you have a personal story you want to share.
What is a Mentor?
I want to start with a definition as the term mentor can mean different things to different people.
The strict definition according to the dictionary is:
An experienced and trusted adviser.
But this is a pretty stale definition, so I want to look a little deeper.
Foundr has an elegent definition:
The mentor is someone who, through their experience and wisdom, provides the hero of the story with the advice and training they need to tackle what lies ahead. But more than being a teacher, a mentor is someone who also acts as a trusted advisor, a role model, and a friend. A mentor offers the ability to help bring out your potential.
In my interview with Claire Emerson, she talks about how she sees a mentor:
“Someone who can expand your frame of reference and show you what is possible in business.”
Even within the mentor framework however, there are many different types of mentors.
There are mentors you gain through a more formal process, like those who are appointed to you in certain leadership programs; and those that are more informal, like your current or former boss.
Then there are mentors who impact you on one specific topic for a short amount of time, and those that can stay with you for your whole life, long after you have moved on professionally.
They can even put your life back on track.
Benefits of Mentors
Such was the case of Holly Shoebridge who had two mentors who were directors at the company where she worked for 13 years.
“These guys have had a huge impact on the person I am today,” Holly told me via email.
When Holly was in her twenties, these mentors shifted her from a “wild lifestyle”, to something more productive – directing her energy into a career doing something she loves.
Holly is now a successful freelance accountant and owes a debt of gratitude to her mentors for helping her get there.
Holly still keeps in contact with her mentors today, and “they have been like watchful big brothers to me,” she told me.
Another woman who has had a lifelong mentor is Cristina Romeo, who has had the same mentor for over 13 years.
“I don’t think I’d be doing the work I am now if it wasn’t for the experience of working for him,” Cristina mentioned.
“He was always fair and listened to all sides. He also gave me the opportunity to shape my role and had faith in me… [which] was a huge boost to my self-esteem and confidence.”
While the relationship has changed over the years, Cristina still holds his advice in high esteem and they still often face similar challenges in business.
While you can have one or two mentors for life, sometimes it can be better to have a team of them.
That’s the experience of Adam Bowcutt, who has a diverse team of mentors helping and encouraging him.
Adam believes in the strength of a team of mentors “because diversity creates a strong variety of complementing strengths and skill sets… A strength in one mentor displaces a weakness in another.”
Adam reaches out to his team of mentors when he needs clarity on a problem, potential solution, or advice on a decision. “My mentors help me to gather valuable information and to learn before I commit to making an effective decision.”
The True Power of Mentors
And this is the true power of mentors – being able to help you when you need it most, whether that’s giving advice on specific issues or guidance over months or even years.
Although this power can be a double-edge sword as Natalia (name changed) and Emma Sharp found out.
While mentors can lift you up and point you in the right direction, some (so-called) mentors can shake your confidence and put you off from ever seeking out another.
This darker side to mentors is almost totally prevalent for women.
The Darker Side of Mentors
While the majority of mentors have nothing but the best for their mentees, some male mentors take things to a very inappropriate place.
Natalia was someone who experienced this – twice!
“My negative experiences with mentors have a solid theme, unfortunately – they’re men who, by their own hubris, personality or unconstrained lust, decided to push the boundary between mentor and letch,” she told me.
And this isn’t just one person’s experience.
Emma Sharp, said she too had a negative experience with a so-called mentor.
Emma was paired with a mentor after enrolling in a leadership program that had three free mentoring sessions added as part of the program.
But it only took Emma one session to realise this wasn’t going to be for her.
He was “very patronizing, overwhelming and aggressive,” Emma told me via Skype. “And he used a lot of patronizing language like ‘sweetie’ and ‘darling’, which he would never have said to a man.”
In Natalia’s case the relationship started off okay, but quickly crossed the line from professional to inappropriate.
In one instance, Natalia was asked back to her mentor’s office after hours (as he told her he didn’t have time during office hours) where he mentioned “he had a hotel room and if I wanted to go to dinner,” Natalia recalls.
The result of these inappropriate and downright sleazy events has a huge impact on the mentees, who end up questioning whether searching for a mentor is something they will do again.
Natalia questioned whether she was “being a fool to ever take on another male mentor.” Which would have a huge impact given how “[males] make up most of the top level executives in every industry.”
Emma had similar thoughts, and the experience made her cautious about the type of mentors she would have in future.
“I am not sure I would not want to have a male mentor,” Emma told me. “If I was going to have a male mentor I would be choosing very carefully. Particularly if they were older.”
This also had an impact on Natalia wanting to give back and take on a mentor of her own:
“I would like to be a mentor one day, to women or men, but how am I supposed to do that if I can’t learn off people I admire?”
Being a poor or sleazy mentor has long-reaching effects.
Have these, or your own, stories put you off seeking a mentor? Let me know in the comments below.
Mentors can be hugely beneficial, but given the stories you have just read, it would be wise to choose carefully and to be wary of formal mentoring programs, making sure your mentor is a good fit for you.
So, how does one find a good mentor?
How To Find a Good Mentor
Understanding what you need in your business or personal development is a good first step.
You should then decide if it’s a mentor you need. Would a peer group or business coach be a better fit?
Once you have decided it is a mentor you need, you have several options.
One of the more industrious ways Claire Emerson used was to take her mentor’s online courses to build a relationship (however tenuous) and then to pitch herself as a solution to her mentor’s non-core abilities.
In Claire’s case, she found out her mentor – Brian Clark of Copyblogger fame – also ran another, lesser-known, blog, and she pitched to write an article for that publication.
From there she built a rapport and relationship with Brian and she is now both an employed freelance for him and mentee.
In Adam’s case, he was lucky enough for his first mentor to reach out to him via social media.
Consecutive mentors were found when Adam reached out via LinkedIn’s mentorship connection tool, which Adam sings praises:
“It’s great! I have multiple mentors from diverse backgrounds, experiences and geographical locations. Sydney, San Francisco, Denver to name a few.”
And using LinkedIn’s mentorship connection tool is something everyone (in the locations available) can easily do.
Where Technology Helps
The other surprising fact about Adam’s mentors is that he hasn’t met the majority of them in person.
Adam thinks it’s entirely possible to build professional relationships via online tools such as zoom and slack.
While technology has permitted this, it’s people that still need to drive it however, and this is exactly what Adam has done.
By using the tools available he has managed to build his network, allowing him a vast array of knowledge, experience, and insight to help him in his professional journey.
Passing the Torch
It’s not surprising the people I interviewed for this article have all expressed an interest in becoming a mentor themselves.
They have all felt a desire to give back because they have been on the receiving end of so much assistance.
As Adam says: “Lead, so when you leave, your influence remains.”
Alternative to Mentors
Mentors may not be for everyone however, but luckily there are alternatives.
Business coaches can help you with specific parts of your business, while a good peer group can help with support and encouragement when you need it.
You could also look at just asking those who you know or respect from afar for coffee. This is also a great idea when researching new ways to do things or to break into a new industry.
Another way is to have an accountability partner or partners – something Seth Godin mentioned in his interview.
Sue Ellson found her accountability partner and has never looked back.
Part mentor, part business coach, part peer, but none of these things; Sue’s accountability partner has helped her focus, overcome challenges, and recognise bad habits.
So, what’s the verdict – are mentors still relevant?
In a word, absolutely.
However, you need to understand what you need in your business at the time, and make sure your potential mentor is a good fit for you.
I interviewed several people for this article and I want to thank them immensely as without their honest input this article would be but a hollow shell.