In Homer’s The Odyssey, Mentor was the character who had been given charge of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, while his father was away during the Trojan War. Although the man himself did not inspire the modern usage of the term, the goddess Athena was said to have appeared as Mentor to provide encouragement and advice to Telemachus in a time of difficulty. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was recognized for her shrewdness and skill in practical strategy. She was often an advisor to leaders and warriors. Even though Mentor may have inspired the terminology, Athena inspired its meaning.
The modern definition of a mentor has come to mean something fairly specific in Western culture in recent years: a professional developmental relationship intended to connect two professionals at different levels of their career, primarily for the benefit of the individual with less professional experience.
It’s not hard to find people who are seeking a mentor, often thinking of it only as someone to show them the ropes to get a job. It is true that finding someone to invest in your career and help you gain access to different networks can make a significant difference in a job hunt. But mentoring is more than that. Successful mentorships are relationships that require nurturing from both parties. They are most effective when there is space to give and accept critical feedback, and when the mentee is ready to address issues and improve. Those seeking a mentorship arrangement should be prepared to dedicate significant time and energy to the partnership.
Mentoring relationships are extremely beneficial for the mentor, not just the mentee. The very act of transferring knowledge can help you process information and solidify your own understanding. Several years ago I had the opportunity to teach a beginner’s ballet class to about a dozen third graders. I neglected to predict the improvement my own ballet technique would see over the course of that year. Teaching greatly improved my own abilities and expanded my skill set. Mentoring in the nonprofit world helps mentors both give back by supporting the future of the sector, and also strengthen their ability to navigate their own careers.
That said, mentoring isn’t for the faint of heart. Before you enter into any sort of mentoring relationship, be sure to evaluate your own readiness. A mentor should be prepared to invest in someone else and to be open, honest, and even vulnerable about their own mistakes. A mentee needs to be fully prepared to put in the time to self-reflect and develop goals for what you want to get out of the mentorship, follow up on suggestions, and accept any critical feedback offered, or the benefits of the mentorship may be lost.
Mentorships vary, but generally they fall into two categories: formal programs and informal relationships.
Formal programs facilitate mentorships through institutions or networks. They may include an application process in which mentors and mentees are paired. Typically these sorts of arrangements are time-bound and have guidelines that define goals, and the volume and content of interactions.
Formal programs have many benefits. Most prominently, they are a quick and easy way to gain immediate access to an individual with more experience in the sector and who has established an interest in mentoring. These systems also have inherent challenges. The relationship is somewhat arbitrary and your ability to connect with that person may not come naturally. Since they are structured and time-bound they might not be as meaningful in the broader sense of your career.
Students looking for a formal mentorship should start at their career center. Many career centers facilitate mentoring relationships between current students and alumni—or between alumni. If you are currently employed, check with HR. Larger employers may have formal mentoring structures, and smaller organizations may have access to mentoring networks that HR can assist you in accessing. Finally, local networking groups or societies such as a young professional network may have a mentoring component. Membership is sometimes required, but the price may be worth it. Membership in a professional society or network may also be useful in other ways.
Potential mentors should also tap into these options. Alumni networks often reach out to graduates just a few years after graduation. Don’t be discouraged if you feel you lack experience; you will be surprised how much you have to offer. Once you are working, you already have more experience than many college students. If your alumni network doesn’t offer a mentor placement program, look into options within your organization or professional networks or societies to which you may belong.
Informal mentoring relationships
Informal mentorships are the sorts of relationships most professionals seek: a natural connection to someone with whom you share mutual interests and goals. These mentorships can offer flexibility and long-term support, and often result in deeper engagement and more positive outcomes. But the reward is matched by the risk. Just like in other sorts of relationships, you have to be prepared to put yourself out there and experience rejection. You might not find your match on your first attempt, but keep trying.
The worst thing you can do is walk up to someone and say, “will you be my mentor?” Mentoring is a significant commitment to invest in the life and career of someone, and without a foundational relationship you are sure to meet rejection. Most informal mentoring relationships are built on hard work. Do a good job and demonstrate excellence in your work; people will take notice and want to invest in you. If you want to take the next step, don’t be afraid to engage with people you admire, but keep it professional and topical. Think of a thoughtful question you can pose about something they have said or done. Do some research and start a conversation with them about things of their interest. Demonstrate your professionalism and your ability to communicate and you never know where the conversation will lead. When appropriate, ask for a business card. If contact information is offered, don’t be afraid to send a quick note, thanking them for their time spent in conversation with you. Maybe even ask a follow-up question or share a relevant piece of information. Avoid asking for anything that requires more than a quick response. Then seek out other opportunities to run into them and engage with them again.
Although people often focus on cultivating a single, close mentor, it can also be useful to have a short list of contacts you can turn to. These relationships tend to be more passive—people who come in and out of your life, but whom you feel comfortable contacting when you need to make a big decision. They might be previous supervisors, professors, or even friends and family members. This approach can give you access to a wider range of perspectives. For mentors, these relationships allow you to help without making as much of a commitment.
Whatever your approach, always remember that some of the best mentoring relationships are never labeled as such. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes; look outside the box. Maybe the person you are looking for is not ahead of you, but beside you. Mentors don’t have to be doing a job that you want; they only need to be willing to support you and your career. Be open-minded when considering your options. Also, keep an eye out for opportunities for you to mentor others. You may have the chance to offer useful insight for interns, students, or young professionals. Mentoring is a wonderful opportunity to create lasting relationships that will have benefits now and down the road.