Before you find a mentor you need to work out if that is what you are actually looking for.
First and foremost, stop thinking of a mentor as something you get and think about it as something you do.
I started my career in media in an era where the concept of a mentor wasn’t acknowledged or a formal process.
Professional development was often limited to your relationship with your boss, your formal education and your family – but for me, I found mentorship with a variety of people in my industry environment, they were the people that I aerated my “what if”, “I wish I could”, “I want to learn” questions toward.
I wanted them to weigh in on my concerns, and in my experience they gave me clarity in my decision making and shaped my direction, so in retrospect I have had many mentors and even now still do, I have observed them both professionally and personally and they have helped shape my decisions.
Mentorship was something that evolved out of my drive to make it happen, in that era it was also sometimes just listening and observing a more experienced person in your workplace with whom you had a connection to. By nature of more time spent in the industry, they were more confident, they knew more – and they helped shape my professional acumen.
Looking up to someone in your organisation is not a formalised ‘mentorship’, but can certainly help you develop purpose and perspective and still holds value.
A good mentor should help you benchmark the expectations of an industry, using their career trajectory and industry and life experience as a guide. Mentors can influence you, but to alter your performance – well that comes down to you.
Most importantly, a good mentor helps you think differently to how you would have on your own.
This leads me to the important matter of defining the expectations of mentorship.
The person you choose can guide you through the challenges and pitfalls of your chosen path, or maybe introduce you to valuable connections that can help you down the road – but they cannot pick the destination that you want your path to lead, that is your job.
They can only offer advice off the back of what you tell them and it is important to be self-actualised and in charge of your own path.
Mentorship is all about what you put into it as the mentoree. Make sure you can dedicate the time and energy necessary to be mentored properly. To do this you need to have a plan, an expectation and a direction. Do you want to work in strategy, in sales, in marketing? Have you taken the time to look at the industry and align your existing or desired skill set to different areas within it? Your mentor can help you ‘shape’ your understanding and challenge your ‘what if’ questions, but they will not be able to define or control what you should ‘do’.
Ask yourself where do you want to be in 3 months, in 6 months, two years, in five years?
Then a mentor will be able to subsequently:
- Challenge question and Explore
- Guide, inform and exemplify
- Offer clarity and assist focus
- Stimulate curiosity
- Inspire in a safe and balanced environment
And if they are like me, celebrate with you when you achieve and succeed!
But they are not there to:
- Pump your ego
- Fix your mistakes
- Get you a job
- Do stuff for you
- Or give you all the answers
A close and top end of town colleague who carries multiple paid mentorships shared with me that a very high % of mentor / mentoree relationships fail.
So why do they fail? To be successful you need connectivity, and recognition that it is only about what you both put in. There needs to be trust, clear expectations and accountability at both sides. So ask yourself are you willing to listen to advice, will you action suggestions, consider a different perspective?
Take every opportunity you can. When your mentor offers to involve you in a project, attend an event, debate thinking or meet a connection, push your boundaries, and say yes.
A personal thing:
In my experience mentorship has been a very private thing, because at the end of the day, a mentor wasn’t something that I was going to put on my CV – it is someone that was invariability able to help me build my own!
Career mentorships weren’t something we talked about, especially considering our industry is so small, today again that is changing. I have never listed my mentors and their industry status, because what benefit would that have bought to my story?
On this point, it is interesting to note that ‘mentoring’ is a fast growing industry, once an unremunerated position, many now do pay for a mentor – and by consequence, it then becomes something that they do list on their CV – it becomes more public. Popular statistics also indicate paid relationships are also often more successful.
Most mentors are willing to help a mentoree out because, at some point, they too have received help.
They know the value of ‘paying it forward’ and hope you will return the favour by offering your own wisdom and advice to others down the line.
How to get one:
It all starts with a coffee or a phone call.
Putting yourself out there and taking the first step on this journey is something that can be intimidating but more often than not you will find that people are happy to help if they have the time and means. As with any request, do your research, be prepared and be willing to explore more than just your first option!
Lesson One, Back yourself and other people will
Maybe the best advice that I ever received in my career was to, back yourself and then other people will. Through your career you will be told at various points that, “this is your time to step up, to shine, to be noticed”, and your mentor is the person you should go to asking to benchmark expectations – ultimately they should help you make this transition.
When I was promoted into a position of leadership in my earlier years, I was worried that I didn’t have the expertise for the job. My self-appointed mentor told me to, “back myself, and others would back me too”. This advice has stuck with me, and is maybe one of the best pieces of advice I have received. No one owes you a great job, you need to earn it. To secure career progression you need to be relentless in building your skills and improving continually.
Lesson Two, The bowl theory
A second piece of good advice I received is called the ‘bowl theory’. Likened by me to ‘food envy’, the bowl theory is when you look at your career and you don’t like what you see. You look at someone else’s career and all you see is all the things you want. You now assume that they got lucky, had fortune on their side, or had opportunity that you didn’t. Like in a restaurant when the food arrives and you are jealous about the other dishes appearing on the table, your ‘bowl’ was your choice; and the same is said for your career. You cannot be jealous about what someone else is doing, because your career at any point is a consequence of choices + decisions you make.
Beyond this been a lesson about running your own race, paving your own career path and not comparing yourself to others, it is more about been accountable for the decisions that you make – and understanding that your ‘bowl’ is what you chose.
But also, of course, sometimes we make a bad choice, and a lesson which my Mother told me is relevant here too, “the difference between an adventure and a catastrophe is the attitude you take”.
Lesson Three, Be so good that they can’t ignore you
I recently read Steve Martin’s advice to aspiring young people, “Be so good that they can’t ignore you”, and I think this is extremely relevant in the media industry and similar to advice I too received.
This piece of advice asks you to leave behind self-centred concerns about whether your job is right for you, and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good at it. Again, no one owes you a great job, you need to earn it. To secure career progression you need to be relentless in building your skills and improving continually.
Lesson Four, Making sacrifices
In my experience we all need to make sacrifices to see ourselves actualise our career goals. We always talk about a work and life balance, but equally, sometimes you will need to change your expectations, your behaviour and your schedule to see yourself succeed. You may need to take a pay cut in another company to allow for future progression, or turn down a promotion when it leads away from the skills you are close to mastering in your existing post.
This piece of advice might steer away from the traditional ‘follow your passion’ advice (that is of course valuable), and speaks more to ‘controlling’ your career journey – because often the passion will still come from this.
Lesson Five, Do good things come to those who wait?
Some other advice that I received was that, all good things come to those who wait. This is something that didn’t work for me. Even when nothing is happening, you can still be doing something. I think that good things come to those who go get them; because when preparation meets opportunity there is always success.
So as I said at the beginning, these are my life learnings from my long career in this industry and I expect that each of you will travel down vastly different paths over the coming years.
Regardless of the niche you have chosen, your position and expectations, when it comes to the relationships you will have with mentors there are some key areas that remain consistent.
- Treat the relationship as a two way street.
- Be willing to put in the work that you expect your mentor to and this means planning in advance and setting clear goals for yourself.
- Be honest with yourself and you mentor.
- Don’t expect them to do the hard yards for you.
- Take ownership of your choices.
- Be willing to readjust your goals.
- Don’t be envious of others and,
- Go after what you want.