July 7, 2017

What makes a good mentor? part 1 of 3

What makes a good mentor?

I didn’t want to ask this question before, because many of my connections – those who think of themselves as mentors – do not fit my definition of the word. Some of these are very nice, well-meaning people, and I don’t want to judge them or their work.

To define mentor, it helps to define bass. Just because you have a deep voice, that doesn’t mean you can breathe underwater. In other words, a word can have more than one definition.

Most of my mentors have been good mentors. However, I think it’s better to have no mentor than a harmful mentor. Anything that can do you good can also, in the wrong doses or the wrong direction, do you harm.

First of all, what do we mean by mentor?  Some people are professional “mentors” but that’s not what I’m talking about. And I’m not necessarily talking about ancient Greek mythology, and how the “Goddess” Athena appeared in the shape of a wise man to encourage Telemachus to find his father. I love old stories, but I think the professional context is a little different. I’m talking here, as most people are, about someone who can help you further, rather than find, your career.

You’ll have many mentors in your personal life, and I’m not going to cover those here. I see the importance of parents, religious leaders, community leaders, and many others in mentoring you on personal things.  However, I’m focusing here on professional mentors.

Now, these mentors basically have three things in common.

  1. They tell you what you should do (or guide you, if you prefer),
  2. They observe whether you’re doing it correctly, and
  3.  They correct you, which is very different from pointing out your mistakes.

You probably know your mistakes yourself. Any fool can find your flaws, and most fools do, but a mentor will guide you instead to the correct alternative.

A driving instructor, in a way, is a perfect mentor. She doesn’t stop at telling you how to do driving manoeuvres, she can see you do them because she’s in the car with you. If she steers you wrong, then she crashes along with you, (so most instructors ride in vehicles fitted with an extra set of breaks, to prevent you from doing too much damage.)

A career mentor should have the same kind of investment in your success, if not more so. They shouldn’t throw you into unimportant projects that present no personal risk to them. They shouldn’t have you work away from them, but they should be in the room with you, so they can observe what you are doing wrong and right, and give you first hand personalised advice.

Career mentors might have you perform simple tasks, like get a drink for a client, but these are intended to help you grow rather than just keep you busy.  Your parents and teachers will also give you chores that they could do more quickly themselves, in order that you can learn what they know.

The main difference between a career mentor and a driving instructor, of course, is that most career mentors will be paying you a small stipend, or at least you won’t be paying them. They’ll show even more confidence than the driving instructor, as they will likely gain no monetary reward from you should you fail to perform well. Even if they don’t pay a salary – as with an unpaid internship or subsidised apprenticeship – they’ll pay insurance,  overheads, and perhaps for a space for you to work in. Or, if they are a senior employee rather than an employer, they’ll be risking their own productivity should you fail.

Unlike the mythical Athena, this mentor is not a god, and is not omniscient. This mortal mentor actually has to be in the room with you, working alongside you, in order to know whether you’re going in the right direction, and will guide you back onto the right path when you’re off course.

If you haven’t guessed this so far, this mentor is probably further along your chosen career path than you are. If you have more experience in your chosen field than the mentor, the relationship probably won’t work out. That doesn’t mean a mentor can’t be younger than you, but generally they should have worked longer in that industry and with that job title than you have.

A fictional mentor might be like Mr Miagi or Mr Han from the Karate Kid movies.  Sports and art is often used as a metaphor, but is it really relevant to your goals?  I thought “Ballerina” was a great film, and it had a great mentorship story in it, but it didn’t seem to break the box office (if you want my opinion on why, that’s a-whole-nother story.)

Okay, so enough theory.  Next time (at Ptara) I’ll tell the story of three mentors who helped me along my different career paths.  Hope to see you here.