There is a general consensus that having a mentor is a good thing, even a critical thing, for a person as they move along in their career.
By the same token, it is encouraged that we, as leaders, mentor the next generation.
But what exactly does it mean to have a mentor or be a mentor?
Like most words in the English language, the definition of a mentor is as individual as the person who is seeking one.
My research into what people expect from a mentor indicates that there are four separate categories: sponsor, skill builder, motivator, and advisor.
The mentor as a sponsor has three distinct functions: increase visibility, foster networking opportunities, and operate as an information broker.
Typically, a mentor is in your organization (or in your same industry) but holds a higher ranking position than you do. Because of this, they have a different peer group and access to information that might not be available to you.
In one client's organization, they encourage job shadowing. A protégé literally goes to every meeting or even on travel with a senior leader, getting explanations along the way of why things are done, or nuances to the situation that are otherwise invisible. Naturally introductions are made and the protégé's network expands tremendously.
If you've been in one department your whole career, having your mentor take on sponsor duties can be just the career broadening opportunity you need.
When the mentor acts as a skill builder, they provide help on specific skills, review work products, and identify behaviors that are obstacles.
Typically this is seen early in a career as someone is just entering the workforce after college or when a significant career change is made.
When I went from leading an organization of 60 engineers to teaching & coaching on leadership development, I had a whole new set of skills to develop!
I definitely needed a mentor in the leadership development arena who guided me on WHAT skills to develop, the ORDER in which they should be developed, and mindset SHIFTS I had to make along the way.
Sometimes your boss can act in this role; sometimes they aren't the best examples to follow, so choose your skill builder mentor carefully.
There are days when all we need is a little validation, and that's where the mentor as motivator comes in. They encourage you to try new things, challenge your assumptions, and generally act as a cheerleader for good ideas.
Imposter Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". It has been getting a lot of press lately, and one of the best ways to overcome it is by seeking out a mentor that motivates you to believe in yourself.
When I was in Organization Development, I swear one of my primary duties was to be a positive presence in the face of a lot of Government negativity. I was the Chief Morale Officer some days, just looking for the positives to point out to other people.
Last but not least are your advisors, probably the most common role a mentor takes on. The mentor provides career advice, gives feedback, and poses challenging questions to broaden your thinking.
Their experience may help you avoid mistakes, and I am all about doing things smarter! My mentor shared many stories about the mistakes he made along the way that became learning lessons for me, minus the pain and wasted time that come from making those mistakes.
The advisor mentor also makes a great sounding board. When I retired and started Coryne Forest LLC, I had numerous ideas for all types of business ventures and products. I relayed all of these to my mentor who then helped me see which ones had potential and why others were better left alone. I appreciated his candor because I might have otherwise pursued a business idea that had no legs.
Having a mentor is not a sign of weakness; it shows you are smart enough and are driven enough to succeed. Be aware of what type of mentor you are looking for, though, so there isn't a mismatch. Naturally, talking about it explicitly with your mentor-to-be is a great idea. And, of course, you might be looking for a little of each! Just be cognizant that there might not be a one-size-fits-all mentor. For example, the perfect sponsor mentor might be so far out of the technical aspects of the work that they can't help you a great deal with skill building.
At an individual level, mentorship is insightful and beneficial. For me, this has been a transformational learning and growth experience, both as a mentor and as a protégé—it has been rewarding!
Invest time in it, and keep at it.
Leaving you with this from the lighter side: Being a mentor requires many sophisticated qualities and skills...being an "ace dude" and burping Elton John's greatest hits are not among them!