We didn’t have mentorship programs in times when I just started my career path in Ukraine. Being born in a post-Soviet Union country in an industrial city I was very limited in choices. I even didn’t know the word “Mentor”. Of course, we had teachers, professors, bosses but these people weren’t the right ones for me. I had an inner desire in someone but I couldn’t even express who I’m looking for.
I was lucky. My first boss was my mentor. Definitely, we didn’t call our relationship “Mentorship” since we didn’t know this word. However, she taught me a lot and I still remember her advice.
However, my first mentorship didn’t last long. Due to very sad circumstances, I lost my boss and got another job. The new job environment was very different. Nobody cared about me. I was desperately looking for someone who can provide me at least similar relationships like I had with my previous boss, but this didn’t happen. On the one hand, I wanted to become independent, learn how to make decisions, mitigate risks. On another hand, I wanted to feel safe and comfortable and just have someone who will tell me what to do and what is right. Do you feel the irony?
I struggled. I had a feeling that I’m inventing the bicycle while everybody else is driving the cars. I knew that “bicycles” exist but no one could show them to me. I kept inventing. I invented “triangle wheels” and made many other mistakes until I created the first more or less useful “bicycle”. I knew that I suffer and put so much effort for nothing. It would be much easier and could save me so much time if someone just showed me the direction!
Time passed. I moved to Canada. Here I was introduced to a proper mentorship program. I felt so good! Finally, someone will teach me! I thought that the only thing I need is to find a good mentor and then I’ll easily figure out what to do with my life and my career will be skyrocketed. Let me guess, you already got what happened next. I found my mentor but our relationships didn’t work. In my head Mentor was an analogy of a Prince on a White Horse, the knowledgeable and powerful person who will save me from my doubts, routines and strugglings. Sheryl Sandberg said a very good phrase:
“we need to stop telling, “get a mentor and you will excel.” Instead, we need to tell, ” Excel and you will get a mentor”.
Eventually, I understood what these relationships are about. I applied for different programs, met great people and had awesome mentors. I understood what I want, got certifications, grew professionally. And last year the first time in my life I became a mentor myself. It was so thrilling and exciting!
So, what it means to me to be a Mentor:
1. Being a mentor is about asking smart questions, not having all answers. Also being a mentor is about suggesting, not instructing.
It doesn’t matter how smart or experienced the person is. One person just can’t have answers to everything. And it is normal. Rather than thinking that as a mentor you just need to provide answers, a much better way is to ask your mentee the right questions and let him/her work on answers and grow. The student never learns without putting some effort into digging for the answers.
2. You are a mentor, not a mother
This was the hardest lesson for me because it is so tempting to me to take my proteges under my wings and just provide them with endless love and care. I had to learn how to resist mothering because when I don’t, the outcome is a blurring of roles and responsibilities. This hurts my mentee and degrades his/her sense of agency and accountability. And it hurts me as well because I take this emotionally and this situation eats up a lot of my mental energy.
3. Being a mentor means being a filter
Having Google as the main source of knowledge and information it is so tempting to say: “Just Google it!” However, if 30 years ago we were struggling in finding at least some information, nowadays we are struggling because there is too much information and it might take years to find what fits our needs. So, being a mentor means that I already have some expertise and have done some research. So, rather than tell my poor protégé to dig tons of information and than figure out what sources work the best for him/her why not to become a filter and save your mentee time for something more useful than just filtering unnecessary info.
4. Not all mentorship ends with a sense of satisfaction.
Sometimes people just don’t match and it is normal.
5. On the other hand, being a mentor can result in a lifelong relationship.
How to understand if mentoring is for you?
- Answer the question why do you want to do this?
My answer is: I am so grateful to my mentors, so I want to pay back. I had my chance and I want to give it to the others. And like Oprah says:
“I mentor when I see something and say, “I want to see that grow.”
- What is your expertise?
It is very noble to help others but before giving hopes to one person it is better to answer yourself: do I have enough expertise on that? The best way of doing this is actually to list all of your expertise in advance, then talk to a potential mentee and see if your expertise is what this person needs.
- Do you have the empathy to distinguish the True goals of your protégé?
You can’t imagine how many times people asked me to help them to develop public speaking or presentation skills! However, their True desire was to get confidence.
- Are you willing to spend time in a mentorship process?
It happened to me a couple of times and I heard a lot of stories about mentors who just disappeared at the beginning or in the middle of the program and stopped replying on emails and texts. First of all this behaviour is not professional. You give your promises, so you need to keep them. Secondly, think about your schedule in advance and make sure that you have gaps for your protégé. Life is unpredictable, so in case your plans had been changed, just let your protégé know.
And in the end, what Mentorship means to me:
Mentorship is building your protege’s muscle memory so that the action can later be performed without thinking. It is external eyes and ears and another level of awareness. A mentor helps his/her mentee to break his/her actions down and helps to build them again. Sometimes like in sport, the mentor sees the wrong moves of his/her apprentice and just places him/her to the corner or somewhere, so these wrong moves are blocked. Words and knowledge are not enough. Practice, observation and creativity in helping your protégé to correct him/her-self, this is what being a great mentor is all about. Teaching imparts knowledge, but it doesn’t always provide the confidence that comes from experience. As a mentor, your goal is to make your mentee a better professional through guided experience.