To mentor or not to mentor, is this still the question?
When I was at the beginning of my career, it was recommended to our embarrassingly keen and corporate graduate cohort that we should find a 'mentor'.
At the time, it wasn't explained what the role of this mentor should be, exactly. Neither was it really explained what we should expect from them, nor them from us. It was more an additional blurry expectation outlined to us, which would help 'pave the path to Partner', supporting us in our quests to be Queen / King of Corporate world (yep). Most of us took to the corporate world with initial gusto, appealing to our obligatory Big-4 competitive streak, and so one of the tick boxes on my corporate list was to find this elusive 'mentor' - and thus continue the long climb of the greasy pole.
At the Consultancy firm in which we were working, they had a fairly archaic piece of software for mentoring, which paired me up with a nice and kindly woman upon my request for a mentor. I dutifully reeled off the answers to a string of inane questions. The problem was, that this woman and I didn't particularly gel - at all if I'm honest. The forty-year age gap when you are fresh out of university is more of a gulf than a gap, and despite persisting with an awkward coffee or two, sadly the romance died. I was back to the drawing board scurrying around trying to source this elusive mentor and tick the box. (Spoiler: I never found one.)
On reflection, and with the benefit of age and hindsight, I do find myself asking why on earth we should have gelled at all. Just to break down this process for a second - I was looking for a total stranger to be a perfect source of career-long inspiration and support, to be able to share challenges, concerns and advice about my career with no judgment. Just the small ask then. Whilst I accept that on occasion, I'm sure this does work well for some lucky people, my bets are that a good, or even mediocre, mentoring match of someone you don't know at all (and that a system has selected for you) has rather poor odds.
Quite a few other former colleagues and friends have had similar experiences, particularly when they are looking to get into a particular industry, where they are met with the well-intentioned "Oh, if you're trying to get into x, you need to find yourself a mentor!". A cold email or three to some unattainably senior people in an organisation doesn't tend to conjure much. In an age where you are told constantly that your network is 'key', it can feel like a real source of failure to not have this elusive CEO mentor with whom to share your ambitions, hopes, and sometimes awkward situations or questions.
I attend monthly community events for Startups that have 'Fireside Chats' with successful entrepreneurs. I began to notice recently that the question asked by the audience every month (almost without fail) seems to be "...so who is your mentor? And how did you find her/him?". What I've found is that most of the entrepreneurs seem to say that they don't have one, but they have many people that they consider mentors. Many sources of information, advice, comfort, concern, support, help and encouragement when they need it. Just like how we are with our friends. A friend who's great at advice, another who's great when you just want a good time, another who's good at picking you up when you feel low, and the rest.
Where the business world seems to fall down is that we don't realise how artificial a construct the work environment is for human beings
The success of the human race has been largely based on our amazing ability to form intricate social groups. We create and maintain large networks of people, where we select our friends and partners on a complex criteria, whose relationships with us often evolve and change with time and experience. Which led me to realise: you wouldn't naturally turn to systems and business networks to find your perfect 'friend' - so why do we expect a different result with a mentor, if the foundations are essentially the same? These foundations being that a mentor, like a friend, should be someone whom you respect and trust. Someone who would support you without (too many) conditions. Someone that you actually want to go and see. Someone who is going to vaguely care about your life and progress.
When I started to realise this, I noticed that I had quite a few accidental mentors, but from all levels of the organisations that I have been in. Being a naturally social person, I love talking to new people and understanding what motivates them, hence my latest career move. As a result of this, what has happened has been a great many reciprocal friendships with some excellent colleagues that I found myself going to as... sources of information, advice, comfort, concern, support, help and encouragement when I needed it. Sounds familiar.
I found that because I actually liked the person, respecting them for who they were and what they did at work, the advice or support stuck in a way that it just never did from the total strangers to whom I'd reached out. Friendships are built on trust, and I can't think why a mentoring relationship should be any different. Irrespective of where someone sits hierarchically in an organisation, any friendship with a mentoring angle should be someone who you trust implicitly. Careers have their peaks and troughs, and are often affected hugely by your personal circumstances and wellbeing. A mentor should be someone you are able to ask for frank advice regarding what career move to make next, which can have life-changing consequences. Any feeling of ulterior motive or self-interest from a supposed mentor should be your first cue to run.
If you don't like or trust the person, forget it
I am lucky to consider a real mixture of people as 'mentors'. Most of whom probably don't know that I consider them in that way (sorry guys). I wouldn't have it any other way. As my career has moved and changed, as have the mentors. But they remain a wide group of people to whom I look for a variety of perspectives, who all grow and change with time. I care about their lives, their careers, their motivations, just as I would a friend. Because I don't think that being a 'mentor' and 'friend' have to be mutually exclusive.
The idea of having one single mentor based exclusively on their seniority and industry I believe can be unreachable and demoralising. However, the idea of having several mentors based on genuine friendship and mutual respect can build an excellent and broad career. It pays to shop around, and gently move on from those who no longer support you in the same way, or whose lives have simply moved on. However - whether it's one person or many, the quest for the perfect mentoring relationship goes on... to mentor or not to mentor seems to still be the question.