I’ve always wanted THE MENTOR – you know, the kind of wise guru that takes you under her/his wing and tells you everything you need to know in order to succeed in your career, playing the benignly patronizing guide along the way. Plato had Socrates. Oprah had Maya Angelou. Sheryl Sandberg had Larry Summers. We all have the Dalai Lama.
The truth is that, while I’ve never had THE MENTOR, I’ve had lots of ‘mini-mentors.’ These have included supervisors and colleagues, other professional contacts, people I’ve met through shared activities or at social events (remember those?), my dad, my kids. I’ve also had plenty of ‘mentoring moments:’ conversations with random strangers on flights (remember those?) or these days in breakout rooms in webinars. This pastiche of guides and coaches — some in more formal relationships to me, some purely situational– have added up to some version of THE MENTOR. I’m going to call this my ‘mentor mosaic.’
I’ve gained so much from the varied experiences and perspectives these people have brought to bear on my career. And now I wonder if this might be a more practical way of approaching mentorship. For one thing, it’s hard to find one person who has the appropriate experience, time and motivation to serve as a mentor. Even if one is lucky enough to identify such a person, a truly successful mentor-mentee relationship, like a great love relationship, can depend a lot on chemistry (I do believe in true love; and true mentorship too! I just think it’s uncommon). Further, sticking to just one mentor can lead to becoming a ‘mini-me’ if the mentor takes a ‘do as I do’ approach rather than one which accounts for personal differences in style/attributes/perspective.
I also believe most of us neglect one of the most important mentors that each of us has easy access to. Ourselves. One exercise I do with some of my coaching clients is that of accessing her/his inner mentor. That’s the wisest, most knowing part of ourselves, the one who has been with us through thick and thin since the day we were born and who has perhaps the most important perspectives to offer us when we need direction or advice, have something to puzzle over, or could use some reassurance.
Finally, if one takes a mosaic approach to mentorship, one can fill in the mosaic quite deliberately and purposefully with people of varied backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. This could include people of other genders/ races/ orientations/ political persuasions. It could include people who supervise you, people you supervise, people you happen to work near, clients. It could include people outside of your organization, your industry. Your guitar teacher, yoga instructor, taxi driver (remember those?).
It’s not necessary to ‘do as your mentors do.’ But you have a lot to gain from watching what they do and hearing what they have to say, even if this serves mostly to sharpen your own thoughts and behaviors rather than mimicking theirs. And when you mix their influence with the wisdom from your own inner mentor, you’ve got a powerful mentor mosaic.
By the way, think of how you can play a mentor role to others, even if it’s not formal or when it’s just in ‘mentor moments.’ You can be part of other people’s mentor mosaics by offering them situational guidance, specific tips for furthering their career, introductions to contacts or opportunities that can give them a professional boost, acknowledgment of a job well done, a different perspective than they might be accustomed to, or simply a listening ear.
I’ll be in your mosaic if you’ll be in mine!