There was Kwai Chang Caine from KungFu: The Legend Continues. Mr. Miyagi fromThe Karate Kid. Grand Master Yoda from Star Wars. M from James Bond. Movies and literature paint us a similar picture of a mentor-figure: all pretty ancient, all very wise and almost all male.
The blazing gazes, the silent disapprovals, the ambiguous advice and sometimes even a sacrifice or two to drive home a point (though these advisors tend to make a comeback either in dreams or by some technical fault of the stars). Whatever the plot lines, the ever present nature of these parental figures remain the only source of wisdom to our hero or heroine.
Can you blame any of us then to have our expectations shattered when we are handed over to a jaded, world-worn senior who would very much like to be anywhere else but here to babysit us?
Where are the Gandalfs or the Obi-Wans of our age, coming to whisper words of wisdom to lead us to greatness? Or to the dark side if you’re being technical about all this.
The reality of mentorship is, to put it simply, nothing like they say in the movies. There is no sole person embodying all positive qualities you’d like them to have. Only someone who is relatively human to the eye. Sans perfection.
This is perhaps one of the most common mistakes we make when we seek out mentoring figures.
You are my one and only
Understanding that mentors are people too is the first step on a long road to learning. It’s only natural that one begins with someone who believes in you.
Former US President Bill Clinton acknowledges how his high school teacher played a huge role in encouraging him to go into politics. Along the way, the former president would also cite a number of people who have inspired and helped him throughout his career.
The fact is you will never find all answers within a single individual. As you progress through your profession, many people will help you learn and grow in various areas.
Particularly relevant to this is Jim Collins, business consultant, lecturer and author ofGood to Great idea of the Personal Board of Directors. In this concept, you are to build a network of individuals who would contribute to your success. The tip is to ask yourself who would help you get there.
As said by Collins, “The best personal boards contain a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives. Members of my own personal board have come from many walks of life – an expert on personal creativity, a founder of a corporation, a fellow professor of entrepreneurship, a former Vietnam POW, a public servant. Personal-board members should not be selected primarily for their ability to help you attain success in your business. Every board member should pass this litmus test: ‘If I were in a totally different profession or business – indeed, if I were not in business at all – would I still have this person on my board?’”
This broadens the concept of mentorship. Before proceeding further, to avoid confusion of terms it would perhaps be timely to point out that this is quite different from a sponsorship.
With the latter, you will have someone who uses their influence to actively advocate for your development by ensuring that you are considered for positions and career advancement opportunities. Whereas the former often offers “psychological” support for personal and professional development through advice and coaching.
However it must be said that when seeking out a mentor, it is not as straightforward as just asking the person of interest to do so. Oprah Winfrey herself expressed the slight awkward nature of being asked by a stranger, “I mentor when I see something and say, ‘I want to see that grow.,’” says Winfrey.
The age old adage that good things come to those who wait is rather fitting here. Studies published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior and Journal of Organizational Behavior have shown that mentors select protégés based on performance and potential.
Therefore, a much more sophisticated mechanism takes place prior to being enfolded in the nurturing arms of a mentor. That is to say, you need to stand out in order to be noticed.
Why this point is important in the quest for a mentor can be exemplified in the point below.
Let’s make it official shall we?
The thing about mentorship is that it is like our conventional understanding of a relationship that feels right to us. That is to say, you know when you know.
There is no contract, or spit-stained handshakes to seal the deal. It literally just happens.
This means just about anyone can be a mentor to you, be it your current manager, a colleague, even your own family member. It’s about receiving guidance and support anywhere and from anyone at all.
This could happen as you wait in line at the grocery store and start up a conversation with the person behind you or even during a moment in which you provide horrible directions to your office only to be gently reprimanded on how you need to learn a better way to do so. The point is, some of the best advice can come from unexpected sources.
The key is to ask for informal advice
One way it’s done here at Leaderonomics is via some of the interviews we conduct. I am blessed with the opportunity to research and prepare our host for some of the most interesting people we have on our leadership show.
Often times, I would sneak in a couple of questions of my own. In this way, I not only get a pretty awesome interview but I also get to take home advice from people like Michio Kaku and our very own Datuk Nicol David.
A particularly memorable one though was with the most recognisable referee in the world, Pierluigi Collina. The current financial consultant talked about how in his career, he had experienced being the youngest and the oldest referee for FIFA.
He believed that during this time, he had learned a lot from both the younger and the more experienced referees. “The point is that you can learn from anyone.”
Are you asking the right questions?
You need to want answers not permission or help.
Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and a strong advocate for women in the workplace encourages women to be more independent. In her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, she compares the recent trend of mentorship to that found in fairy tales in which the female character waits for her prince charming to whisk her away on a white horse to live happily ever after.
She sympathises that because it is harder for women to find mentors and sponsors as compared to men, the former would take active steps seeking them out with a misguided belief that this must ultimately lead them to the corner office.
The significance of having a mentor is not understated but through this, Sandberg cautions that such a relationship would likely not develop from asking a virtual stranger.
If however you feel that you really must ask something, then ask pointed questions. A well thought out query can yield promising results. Don’t be long-winded or invasive and have respect for your potential mentor’s time. It can be as simple as seeking guidance by seeking someone particular in your industry.
The idea is to initiate communication, then work to keep the connection consistent. Updates on how you successfully put to use the advice with a short “thank you” go a long way to establish trust in the early stages. Always remember that it’s a two-way relationship.
“Figure out what you want to do before going to see the people who have the ability to hire you,” Sandberg writes.
Informal to formal programmes
Today, many companies have taken up the mantle of establishing mentorship programmes in their organisations.
This takes away much of the pressure that comes with approaching someone directly. It also helps normalise a male-female relationship.
We would be mistaken to think that this problem only crops up in more – to use the perhaps inaccurate term – conservative nations.
In the book The Sponsor Effect it is stated that a study published by the Center for Work-Life Policy and the Harvard Business Review reports that 64% of men at the level of vice president and above are hesitant to have a one-on-one meeting with a junior woman while half of the junior women avoided close contact with senior men.
Closer to home, a great example of a company already addressing this issue is the eight month Women in Leadership programme initiated by TalentCorp.
Female senior managers are paired up with leaders from various industries regardless their gender. The main goal however is to address the sharp decline in the number of women moving up the career hierarchy.
However, formal programmes are not always offered in companies and in some situations, the seniors paired to a junior-mentee may not be as available as they would like to be as they are also dealing with their own high-stress jobs.
On the bright side, you don’t have to exclusively rely on guidance coming from a more senior level. Peers can also mentor one another. At times, friends who are in a similar career standing may have advice to offer that is more current and useful especially when some of the issues that arise come from the top.
What’s in it for you?
As with any healthy relationships you recognise, it needs to be something that positively adds quality and definition to your development.
In a professional setting, this could mean getting a leg up on endless opportunities in order to gain skills and broaden your knowledge. It would also add credibility to your credentials.
On the flip side, for a mentor, the challenge can be a huge factor in selecting their protégé. Generally, people in a position to mentor will be well-equipped for problem solving so don’t be afraid of asking for input. As you follow up and seek out more opportunities to ask questions, this person will very likely become invested in your development.
In addition, watching a person flourish in their profession, up close and personal is an inspiring experience for a mentor. At the same time, the mentor also learns and receives a sense of fulfillment and pride knowing that they had contributed in some way to the success of the person they mentor.
When done right, both sides could gain a lifelong learning experience and perhaps even the most loyal friend akin to that of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
Perhaps one of the most important factors in a successful mentorship is to constantly be open to learning.
In a recent interview with Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, she reiterated the importance of being able to work with a person who is open to criticism and who would not be afraid to tell her that she may be in the wrong. In other words, a person must be able to receive in order to give.
As it is unrealistic to expect a single individual to have all the answers to your queries, a mentor-mentee relationship should be viewed broadly in that you can learn from just about anyone.
The truth of the matter is that, whether you realise this or not, throughout your life, you would have met numerous people who have shaped and moulded you into the person you are today.
Whether you regard them as contributors in some official terminology is irrelevant. It is, however, imperative that those you do appoint to your Personal Board of Directors are the people who are going to be there and support you when the going gets tough.
The connections you build can come from small steps like asking advice from a complete stranger of prestigious standing whom you admire, which is then followed by updates on the results from the discussion. The key is to do your research so you would remain specific and respectful of the latter’s time.
And if there was anything that movies or literature taught us about mentoring, it would be that the relationship is more important than the label.
Here are some helpful tips on your journey to a fulfilling mentorship experience:
•Research and find out more about your mentor
•Instead of approaching someone with a mentorship in mind, try instead with a question for a specific problem or with a request for advice on an idea
•Be open to learning from anyone. Great advice sometimes comes from the most unexpected people
•Don’t be afraid to ask for help
•Always remember: It’s a two-way relationship. Communication is vital.
•Enjoy the experience.