So, you need a mentor...
I extoll the virtues of good mentorship often as one of the most important assets needed to get by in this game, but the idea of what mentoring means and who a mentor is has gotten a little convoluted. It wrote this piece about how a great mentoring relationship can give you a leg up in entertainment (or any) industry for Global Grind in 2010, and I pulled it out, dusted it off and updated it a bit, because it’s still relevant and applicable.
In my opinion, aside from raw talent, a productive relationship with a professional mentor is one of the keys to a successful career path. I’ve been fortunate to have several great ones in my own journey. However, there’s a right and not-so-great way to go about this. Let’s discuss:
WHAT IS A MENTOR?
I’m glad you asked. A mentor can be anyone with more experience (life experience, job experience, etc) than you. In best practice, they’re someone who you respect and admire, and who’s made choices and strides in their career or lives similar to those you aspire to make for yourself.
WHY DO I NEED A MENTOR?
Glad you asked that, too! A mentor has been there, done that. They’ve traveled the road and have the battle scars. My father used to say,“Life’s not long enough to make all the mistakes yourself. Learn from others.” This is where a mentor comes in. They can warn you that flipping on your boss really isn’t the best idea, or how to best handle a difficult client, or how to navigate macroaggressions without losing your sanity or your job. They can warn you of impending risks and pitfalls and how to avoid them. At the same time, you can also learn from their successes. They’re able to provide real life insight through practical example that’s better than any book or blog.
Another perk of having a mentor is the expansion of your network. A mentor most likely has greater relationships than you do (both in quantity and quality), and may give you some access to those people. This could lead to the inside track on a job, or put you in position for a great opportunity because you were that much closer to a decision maker.
HOW DO I FIND/CHOSE A MENTOR?
Before you identify a mentor, you need to know what your own goals are. There might be someone who’s visible, doing dope work, and you admire them…but if you can’t identify anything specifically about them other than ‘they’re dope’ that draws you to them, they may not be the one. We all stan dope people in the digital age, but being a fan isn’t enough of a reason to want to forge a relationship. Take a look at the people in a space you want to occupy, and watch their moves for a while, learn their stories. There may be great mentors in closer proximity, like your company or building. It could even be your boss. However, some people mistakenly automatically consider their boss as a mentor. If you are fortunate enough to have a boss that wants to shape you and help you grow, who takes the time to explain things to you and makes sure you understand processes, and who gives you the opportunity to stand (or fall) on your own; then yes, your boss is a mentor. Otherwise, they’re just your boss.
Organizations are another way to find someone. Professional organizations and service, social, academic and even alumni organizations are full of people who probably have like interest and background and can serve as a good mentor for you. The more involved you are in your orgs the easier it’ll be to find that person. As we’re looking in all these external places, let’s also not forget those who are right around us. There may very well be someone in your life – family or friend – that you’ve always admired and respected and can be of solid counsel to you.
I FOUND SOMEONE. NOW WHAT?
This is the step where many fumble. Once you’ve targeted a person and you decide to reach out, please remember that you’re asking them to make an investment of time and energy with you, for your benefit. Hoppin’ in social media DM’s may not be the best way to go about it; I talked about how not to approach someone for mentorship or professional advice on Twitter a few months ago.
Here’s what might work instead:
THEY AGREED! NOW THEY JUST PUT ME ON AND GIVE ME ADVICE, RIGHT?
Nope. The mentoring relationship is based on trust, respect and confidence – that goes both ways. Just as you want them to respect you and take you seriously, always make sure you show them the same regard. They should be able to gain something from you just as you are gaining something from them. Send them a token of thanks when they do something for you. Forward them articles or other info you think they might find interesting. And if they ever call on you for anything, make yourself available.
HOW DO I KNOW IF SOMEONE IS NOT A GOOD CHOICE?
Let’s look at the indicators that someone may not be a great (or even good) mentor:
The rule of thumb here is to imagine yourself as that person in several years, and imagine how you would feel standing in their shoes. Look at choices they’ve made, people they interact with, and how they treat others. If they don’t embody who you want to be, or at least have many of the characteristics, they’re not the right person.
ONE MORE THING… Once you’ve identified someone, asked them to mentor you, and started establishing a relationship, please remember one thing a mentor is not: A mentor is not a benefactor or a godparent. Those relationships exist, too, but they usually develop organically. It is not your mentor's purpose to get you a job (although they often help in that area), or to tell you step-by-step what to do. They offer guidance and resources. You add your own hustle to the mix to make things happen from there. They’re also not a babysitter; they're not there to bail you out if you find yourself in hot water (although many may, but it shouldn’t be an expectation).
Ok, I lied, there’s still one more thing. When you do finally hit the big time, make sure you reach back and mentor someone else. Every climb is a little easier when you have a guide.