Posted by: Emma Hickey, Senior Content Contributor
I didn’t always understand the need for a mentor. I thought a professional mentor relationship sounded like a strange mix between a student-teacher relationship and an inorganic friendship, and I didn’t think it seemed necessary. Though it certainly made sense to find someone who had more professional experience than I did and use them as a soundboard in certain situations, I was put off by the idea of labeling that relationship as a “mentorship” and adding any kind of formal structure to it. I gave it a try anyway, though, and I’ve been meeting with my mentor for over a year now. I’ve come to realize that not only is there great value in having a mentor in my life, but there’s also great value in naming the relationship as such. Everyone should have a Mentor with a capital M.
The first time I met my Mentor was when she interviewed me for what ended up being my first job out of college. For a short while, I reported directly to this person as we worked together on a long-term project. When that project ended, I went back to reporting to a different manager, and that’s when my Mentor proposed we try out a more formal Mentor-Mentee relationship. I agreed, but I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I liked working with this person, that I got along with her and that there was a lot I could learn from her, but I didn’t know what I would possibly gain from meeting with her for the express purpose of mentoring. Right away, she asked me to the pick the date, time and place of our meeting and set the expectation that as the Mentee, it would always be my responsibility to plan our meetings. That was the first moment when I realized how useful it was that we added a level of structure to our relationship. It was efficient, and even freeing, to assume that my Mentor would always be willing to meet with me as long as I brought her the details of the meeting fully formed. There was no worrying about taking up too much of her time by asking to meet, and there was no wondering about whose job it was to coordinate our meetings. She always willing to meet and I would always plan the meetings. We both knew our roles, and it was already making our lives easier.
As we continued to meet, I realized that having a clearly defined Mentor is useful when I have a question about, well, anything. Whenever I need advice on how to navigate difficult work conversations or when I want help brainstorming possible strategies to resolve a problem, I always turn to my Mentor. I trust her opinion and I know she’ll offer me sound advice and leads on where to find answers if she herself doesn’t know them. All that nearly goes without saying, though. Of course you should pick a Mentor whose opinion you trust and whose voice you listen to. You may even have a person or two in your life like that right now, but there’s a difference between that person and a Mentor, and that difference is the clearly defined role. In a Mentor-Mentee relationship, the expectation is that the Mentee will ask the Mentor questions and the Mentor will help. If I want to ask for a raise at work, for example, I love that I have a Mentor who I can turn to for guidance without any of the preamble that might be necessary when asking for help from someone who is not my Mentor. It’s liberating to know that when I want my Mentor’s help with something, I can just ask for it. I don’t have to start with any of these qualifiers:
“Hey, I know this is out of the blue but…”
“I’m sure you’re super busy but could I just get your thoughts on something real quick...”
“I hope I’m not bothering you and I’ll totally make this up to you, but can I ask a question?”
By definition of our relationship, my Mentor is available and accessible when I reach out.
My Mentor has also surprised with the many realms in which she’s been able to offer mentorship. I’m working to grow as a writer and while I definitely wanted career guidance on this topic, I did not expect to get it from my Mentor simply because she herself is not a writer. In fact, when we first started meeting as Mentor and Mentee, it didn’t even occur to me to bring writing into the conversation because it was so far outside of the scope of my company at the time, where we both worked. I didn’t think my Mentor could help me in this area, and I was wrong. As noted in the Poros blog post “The Wrong (and Right) Way to Network,” just because someone isn’t in your field doesn't mean they don’t have any connections in your field. Through her network, my Mentor was able to introduce me to a full-time freelance writer who then connected me to several communities for female writers across the US, which have proven to be endlessly useful resources for me as I develop my writing career. Even if it doesn’t seem like the potential Mentors available in your life could help you with a specific career goal, I’d say you should keep an open mind and try out a Mentor-Mentee relationship, anyways. I bet they’ll surprise you.
There are so many benefits to having a Mentor. If you’re feeling averse to the idea of a formal mentorship, I encourage you to put those ideas aside for a short while and give it a try anyways. There are a lot of negative connotations when it comes to the idea of labeling relationships and people, but I think the Mentor-Mentee relationship is an example of something that actually thrives when you label it. It’s more successful and more fruitful when you apply the label because it creates the kind of expectations a Mentor-Mentee relationship needs. Give it a shot! Having a Mentor has only made my life better, and I think it could improve yours too.