For all of the fuss made about how important and valuable mentors can be (a fuss I often make!), there’s a lot of bad information out there too. I am surprised by the number of young women I meet who either don’t have mentors or who don’t find them helpful. I think a lot of that comes down to misunderstandings about what mentors are (and are not) and what role they can play in your life.
If you’re feeling frustrated by a lack of mentors, or by a mentorship that doesn’t seem to be working, you might need to recalibrate your expectations. Consider whether any of these common misperceptions are tripping you up:
A mentor is not a Fairy God Mother. She can’t solve all your problems for you or whisk you away to the corner office. I had a mentee once who seemed to expect me to wave a magic wand over her career. We were paired together through a formal program, during which she seemed only vaguely interested in my advice or perspective. Yet she asked me a number of times to call prospective employers on her behalf in order to give her my recommendation. This continued after the program ended, even though she didn’t try to keep in touch with me otherwise or even demonstrate much gratitude for my efforts.
When I enter into a mentoring relationship with someone, whether formal or informal, I’m happy to—as appropriate—try to use my position or contacts to help advance their careers, but I don’t see that as my primary role, and I don’t expect to be treated that way by my mentee.
The most important role of a mentor is to listen, ask questions, and provide thoughtful alternatives to consider. You should view your mentor as an advisor, more than anything, one who is willing to be generous with her time and efforts but who still deserves your appreciation and respect.
A mentor is not a mind reader. Your mentor can’t solve problems you don’t share or give advice you don’t ask for. You need to be clear about communicating your goals and your needs. I have had a lot of fantastic mentees, but the ones that stand out in my mind were the ones who always were prepared and didn’t abuse my time. I will call the three that stand out Annie, Kerri, and Sarah. Each of these three women were proactive about setting up our time together and sending meeting invites. Each of them had either prepared an agenda ahead of time, or we had communicated during our last call what we planned to discuss during the next call. They were always on time, prepared, and we covered the agenda (and often much more). These three stick out in my mind, because they so clearly demonstrated respect for our time together and an awareness of their own needs and goals. Because they had taken time on their own to think through the questions or challenges they had, and communicated clearly, I was empowered to be a better mentor.
A mentor is not (just) a friend. Mentoring relationships often develop into friendship, but if your mentor has gone to the trouble of setting aside specific “mentoring” time, try to be respectful of that time and make the most of it. My mentoring relationships with the three women I described above sounds quite formal, and it’s true that they started out that way, but over time, much deeper friendships developed. I have a personal relationship with all of these women because of the respect built around our mentor relationship. Do show an interest in your mentor’s life and be authentic about your own, but don’t treat a mentoring hour the same way you might approach coffee with your girlfriends.
A mentor is not going to find you. Many people, myself included, enjoy mentoring others. It can be invigorating, enlightening, and quite gratifying. But even the most enthusiastic mentors probably aren’t going to seek you out or ask permission to mentor you.
You need to do the legwork here, but you do have some options. You can look around for an established mentor program like ours to take part in (4word is accepting applications for its summer mentoring session through May 29!). Formal programs have the benefit of some guiding structure, and you’ll know that you’re getting a Mentor who has been “vetted” in some sense. And the mentoring relationships can be vibrant and fruitful. I have had the opportunity to formally mentor one woman through Former First Lady Laura Bush’s Women’s Initiative Fellows Program at the Bush Center, three women at Trammell Crow Company, three women through CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women), and one person in the 4word: Mentor Program. I enjoyed and saw great value in the mentoring process through each of these programs, even though they looked and operated differently, and I’ve kept up with most of my mentees even after the formal program ended.
Another option is to look around you for more informal mentors. Informal mentorships can be just as intensive as a formal program, or more casual “as-needed” sorts of arrangements. I’ve experienced plenty of both types, as mentor and mentee, and found that both are valuable. Building a mentoring relationship from scratch will take a little extra work on your part, since you’ll need to actually ask the person and be extra clear about communicating your goals and intentions. The biggest benefit though is that you can choose someone you personally admire and with whom you already “click.” I encourage you to get creative too; a mentor doesn’t have to look like you or share all of your ambitions to have a meaningful impact on your life. I’ve informally mentored an Olympic Athlete (who happens to be male, and Sudanese), a social impact entrepreneur, and numerous other people of different religions, backgrounds, races, and cultures. At times I’ve been nervous about whether I could really offer much to someone whose life is different from mine, but God has shown me that great growth can happen in even the most unlikely of pairings.
One of the things I love most about mentoring is the joy of seeing God work in someone’s life (and mine) in totally unexpected ways. Mentoring is one of the models God laid out in the Bible (in Titus 2 and elsewhere) for believers to help grow and sharpen one another. If you’re struggling with finding a mentor, or with worrying that you have the “wrong” one, I encourage you to take a step in faith, and trust God to work in that process for you.
Do you feel called to be a mentor? Are you looking for a mentor? The 4word Mentor Program is currently accepting applications for the upcoming fall session. Visit the Mentor Program website today and submit your online application by September 2, 2016!
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