Mentors Aren't Assigned - They're Earned

Few things are as professionally beneficial as strong mentorship in the formative stages of your career, yet this is among the least-well understood concepts among people entering the workforce today. When you listen to older executives, artists, and athletes recall the people who guided them early on, they tend to say things like “Arthur was a true mentor to me,” or “Catherine was one of my greatest mentors.” Note their sentence structure. They speak either in the plural or in the abstract about mentors and mentorship. At some point though, a shift occurred in the language our generation uses (sidebar: are people born in the early 1980s Millennials? So far ‘Oregon Trail Generation’ is the best term I’ve heard for my cohort). I don’t know if language is the symptom or the cause, but I hear people starting out today say things like, “I’m hoping that Amy will be my mentor,” or “When will the company assign my mentor?” Ick…my mentor? When did this become an exclusive relationship, much less a monogamous one? What kind of expectations are we placing on the people who help us navigate our careers? I find almost all of the millennial-bashing among pundits to be unoriginal and stupid, so as one of your own (I think) let me just say that I think we can all benefit from some level-setting on this front.

I’ll clarify my own language first. I call a mentor anyone of greater experience than you who advises you on how to improve your work and its perception in order to help you grow as a professional. They take personal interest in your development. When it comes to mentors, I don’t believe in monogamy; I believe in collecting them. As you work on different projects with different teams, you may come across numerous people who have succeeded in ways that you’d like to emulate. Anyone from whom you would like to learn can be a source of mentorship. If a person’s career looks like the one you want, there is wisdom for you to tap, though obviously not everyone is equally eager to do this.

That brings us to the mentoring “relationship”. To me, mentors are like friends: it’s weird to formally define things. Moreover, there are lots of people that you can learn from without having some sort of official mentor-protégé relationship. Speaking for myself, the most valuable teaching moments in my career have mostly happened casually and without warning. Performance reviews are great, but they happen twice a year if you’re lucky. The best conversations I’ve ever had about my future and how I could take my career to new places took place while driving to the airport with colleagues after a big meeting, or during marathon strategy sessions in windowless conference rooms, or while eating takeout food with my boss in the office on a late night. So rather than try to formally acquire “your” mentor, put yourself in position to be a magnet for advice from people whose success and skills you respect.

Mentors Aren’t Assigned. They’re Earned.

The corporate mentor program is the culmination of the way in which employees and companies have distorted the notion of what a mentor is and does. Once again, I don’t know if these programs are a reaction to or the cause of the expectations among people entering the workforce today. In case you’re not familiar, these are company programs in which new employees are officially assigned a more senior mentor within the organization. Usually the program entails some regular check-in meetings and possibly some other prescribed outputs. This says to me that too many people understand the value, but not the mechanics of receiving guidance.

Perhaps the acknowledgement of the value that mentors can create spawned a moment of, “well, we should make sure everyone has one.” Regardless, a real mentor is invested in your professional development because they genuinely care, not because they are assigned to you. Mentors tend to see bits of themselves in the junior colleagues in whom they take an interest. How can someone be assigned to believe in your potential? An arranged marriage only guarantees the arrangement - not the attraction.

A second drawback of the mentor assignment model is that it perpetuates the fantasy that a mentor shows up and magically makes people more successful. This shift from simply getting mentorship to having “my mentor” entrenches the white knight mentality further, to everyone’s detriment. Though you need plenty of resources available to you, the person responsible for your personal development is you, period. No one will ever care about your development more than you do. If you cede that responsibility to a mentor or worse, to your company, you may not like the results.

Those two issues pale in comparison to what I find the most backwards about companies assigning mentors: Mentors don’t make you good - they make you better. You earn involvement of a real mentor because you’ve already demonstrated professional achievement and earned a measure of their respect. The hard truth is that people don’t want to invest their time grooming nobodies, nor do they want to network with nobodies, for that matter. Mentorship and networking are generally how the rich get richer. Rising stars get the attention from senior managers early on, which helps perpetuate their success. On the flipside, the people who are probably most in need of exposure to more people and opportunities to get a boost don’t get them. Harsh, but true.

The key takeaway for you is that you shouldn’t expect the best mentorship and coaching to fall into your lap. Of course, the best way to get an influential person’s attention is to be an influential person yourself. This turns out to be one of the great chicken-egg situations of the early career: How do you get influencers to care about you when you don’t have influence? Because successful people tend to be judicious about managing their schedules, you have to make the case to anyone who cares that investing their energy in coaching you will be worth it and enjoyable for them. You need to create value for them or pique their interest. Which of those you choose to do to prove that you’re worth their investment is a painkillers versus vitamins decision. That is, do you attempt to solve a pressing problem for the person (the painkiller), or provide them with something new and interesting but non-urgent (the vitamin)?

I’ll dedicate a separate post to how to go about solving problems for the individuals whom you want to learn from, but bringing interesting ideas to the table is straightforward. It also harnesses two helpful aspects of human nature for your benefit: the manager’s sense of responsibility, and mankind’s innate impulse to teach. For example, a senior manager probably knows implicitly that you don’t understand every aspect of the business yet. But if you bring a specific idea or question to them, they will feel obligated to correct any misperceptions you might have. This is a perfect time to get answers to the Type 2 Problems you’ve already identified about the business.

As you discuss the organization’s challenges and strategic options, you’ll naturally discuss the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Your understanding of why the business operates as it does grows by leaps and bounds from such conversations. And in case you missed it, reviewing the organization’s strategy, discussing solutions to the most important challenges, learning how big decisions get made…that’s mentorship! In fact, it’s better than what most young careerists think of as mentorship. Too often people assume that mentorship starts with their career. The most valuable teaching moments are when insiders show you how they make decisions and how the big things get done. Demonstrate that you’re smart and you’re focused on the big picture because you care, and people will start grooming you to be a steward of the business. That’s the prize in all of this.