If you had mentioned mentors to me a while back, I may have asked if they were that necessary. I mean, I had people I looked up to or whose progression I followed, but not so much as involving them in my career choices. I had access to them if I wanted to, but I just never defined our ‘relationship’.
In recent times, however, I have come to give thanks for someone I can confidently refer to as my mentor. Like I literally thank God for his life every other day. Who is a mentor? A mentor is a trusted counsellor or guide.From the words ‘counsellor’ and ‘guide’, you can tell that this is someone you have open access to. Not just a random celebrity or captain of industry say, whom you have never met and probably would never meet. Your mentor cannot be a stranger.
Mentorship works both ways. You choose your mentor and he/she chooses you as a protégé. Your mentor has to be actively interested and involved in your growth. I don’t know about approaching someone to be a mentor. I believe it’s a relationship that grows with time. It could be your parent’s friend who has taken active interest in your professional growth or that senior in secondary school or that lecturer you had a good relationship with.(Nurture your relationship with your lecturers especially if you intend to further your academic pursuit. My lecturers went out of their ways to have my reference letters delivered to me when I couldn’t meet up with them to collect same.)
For me, my mentor happens to a contemporary of one of my parents. He also happens to be a pioneer in my chosen field so when I/my parents mentioned my interest, he began to take me under his wings and our ‘relationship’ has gradually evolved since then. He gave me my first job as an intern. I had a formal interview with him before I started. I even wrote an application for the position and then had to submit a final report at the end of my internship. So it wasn’t just a case of who knows who.
My parents also push me to discuss with him from time to time given his expertise. I’d want to do something or when I was job-hunting, they would ask if I had discussed with him so I knew better to talk to him and have my answer ready if my parents asked.
Now, your mentor has to be open to communication. Remember the post on Courtesy? I can count on him to always respond to my emails. That’s another thing – identifying the best means of communication. My mentor travels a lot and I have come to realise that the best form of communicating with him is via emails.
At every point, I have always tried to update him on my progress. Finished undergrad and I informed him of my grade and delivered a hard copy of my dissertation to his office. Decide to do a Master’s, I informed him. Selected my thesis area of concentration, I informed him. Completed my thesis, I sent him a copy (Turns out I didn’t and he had to ask only too recently). Completed my Master’s degree and was ready for the job market, I informed him of my grades (when it was eventually released) and detailed my plans for work. He offered some advice and has kept me in check since then. With all these updates, my mentor can off the top of his head provide a reference for me. This has built some level of respect between us and I dare say I enjoy a great deal of respect from my mentor.
Remember I said that mentorship is a two-way relationship. Your mentor has to be actively interested and involved in your growth. Sometime last year, my mentor called to remind me about my career plan as it appeared I was getting too comfortable where I was. I tried to bullshit him and he was having none of it and next thing I knew, I was being summoned to his office for a long talk. I was to embark on a project, which he is very much vested in. Even my parents are not stressing me out about it. I went to see him and together we drew up a plan. Fingers crossed on that for now. That conversation ignited something in me, which eventually led to me quitting my job at that point. Now, to be clear, I would have resigned at some point and transitioned into the project, but I could not put in place the structures for the project if I remained on the job. When I made the decision to quit, you can guess what I did. I informed him and explained in great details my plan for that period. His response? ‘If that’s what would get you started on the project, that’s fine.’ He also gave me some leads on other jobs I could apply to that would give me some measure of freedom that I needed.
You can see that his response was neither a ‘Yes, I think you should quit’ nor a ‘No, I think it would be foolhardy to quit your job’. Your mentor should not dictate to you. He/she is there to guide you, not run your life. We disagree from time to time e. g. choice of professional exams. He wants me to take one, which although I agree to be useful, is not my priority. He subtly throws it in from time to time in our conversations, but it is never something he forces down my throat. The project too. We are not in agreement on the subject matter, but his attitude is let it pull through and then we can discuss later. Your mentor should respect your choices and support you even if they are not in full agreement so long as your actions or inactions are not harmful to anyone or illegal.
Lastly, don’t start making demands or seeking favours from your mentors. I see this a lot even in day to day relationships. People establish some form of cordiality with others and next thing, they want to borrow this or that. Drivers start asking you for their house rent or money for funeral expenses etc. Personally, I’m wary of getting close to people for this reason. I am not opposed to being charitable, but don’t make me feel like you’re taking advantage of our friendship. It also makes people uncomfortable around you because they feel you’re always going to ask for one thing or the other. Apart from my internship, my mentor has never called in a favour to get me a job. Not that it is a bad thing, but it just has never happened. Rather, he would point me in a direction or write glowing letters of recommendation. I think that is where the respect for me also comes in. I have never collected a dime from him nor has he offered me. I think at this stage, I would feel awkward if he did offer me. He has, however, given me numerous study materials *tears*. Stock up on favours, they’ll come in handy someday – I learnt this from my parents. Let your relationships with people be devoid of constant requests. It elevates you in their eyes and makes them feel indebted to you when you eventually ask.
In the long run, your mentor may begin to see you more as a contemporary than a protégé, and be inspired to share more with you in confidence. My mentor gives me the juiciest inside gists. As moral lessons though.
I think that is about it on mentorship. I have illustrated using my own relationship with my mentor to provide some insight rather than providing a list of dos and don’ts.
Thanks The Lady. Your piece has been very enlightening, as always.
I've just got one question I've been meaning to TTB readers. Guys, some people say if you want to grow and advance in your career, then you must have a mentor. Do you agree with this statement? Just how important is having a mentor to one's career, and does everyone need one?