Yes, you heard me. No one wants to be your mentor. I know what you're thinking, "Really? No one? Isn't that kind of harsh?" OK, let me think about it some more. Hemming … hawing … STILL NO. No one wants to be your mentor. Of course, there are going to be exceptions to the rule, but just plan on not being one of them.
Here is why:
This is arguably the biggest reason no one wants to be your mentor. Even if the spirit is willing, the schedule is probably full. The most worthwhile, sought-after mentors are knowledgeable, insightful, and in demand. Being asked to add one more (unpaid) task or responsibility to their list feels overwhelming. Plus, a common (if unfair) stereotype is that today's younger workers are entitled and extra needy. This sounds exhausting! Time is a busy person's most precious commodity.
I'm going to assume that you're likeable, but sometimes you just don't click with people. And that's OK! Just think if someone you only faintly knew walked up and asked, "Would you like to be my boyfriend/girlfriend?" Unless you were in third grade, that would feel a little weird. Asking someone you don't already have an established relationship with to be your mentor is kind of the same thing. (In theory, it's possible someone will want to mentor you who you don't particularly connect with as well, which is also awkward!)
3. What's in it for me?
A real, genuine, authentic, mentoring relationship must be a two-way street. What do you have to offer a mentor? If all you can think of is "potential," you need to keep thinking. From the perspective of a lot of executive-types, mentoring is a big investment of their time and energy. Are you going to make them look good? Have you proven to be a good bet? In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes, "We need to stop telling [women], 'Get a mentor and you will excel.' Instead, we need to tell them, 'Excel and you will get a mentor.'"
4. Your expectations
Last fall I decided I wanted bangs, so I got them. Imagine my astonishment when my life did not immediately change for the better. Then it hit me: I was turning 40. I didn't need bangs! I needed therapy! And probably Botox! I realized that my expectations for what bangs were going to do for my life were completely unrealistic. Likewise, you might think you want a mentor, but what you actually want is a cross between Yoda and a fairy godmother. No wonder no one wants to be your mentor!
Even if someone does agree to mentor you, it's not going to catapult you into instant career success. It's important to remember that people who might want to become a mentor don't feel they can live up to a potential mentee's expectations. And for good reason.
Take responsibility for your own career development.
I'm not going to dispute that mentors are important — in fact, they are critical to personal and professional success. And never are you more in need of a mentor than when you are fresh out of college, in a career transition, or in a new role of any kind.
However, no one is entitled to mentoring. Are you entitled to adequate supervision and training? Yes. But they are not the same thing. Let's actually define mentoring. There are a LOT of definitions (which is part of the problem), but here is one that I think contains the most general understanding.
Mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé).
I think the key word here is "informal." True mentorship happens organically, over time, and through genuine relationship. Sometimes you won't even be aware you've been mentored until years later. True mentoring does not always need a DTR (define the relationship) conversation. Some organizations even provide mentoring programs — which might be great, or might not be.
Basically, if you're lucky to have a mentor, then you're lucky enough.
So then. What's a sad, mentor-less person supposed to do? Luckily, there are a couple of other ways you can think about this.
Instead of a mentor, consider:
- Forming a board of advisors. A personal board of advisors (or board of directors) is a group of people who you can go to individually for specific advice on a particular issue. Just like companies have boards that utilize the expertise of their members to propel the organization forward, so can individuals. Seeking a wider range of opinions broadens both your perspective and your network. This has a less personal feel than a mentor, but you might also get better, more focused advice.
- Finding an advocate or a sponsor. An advocate is someone who will talk you up when you're not in the room, and a sponsor is someone who can pull strings on your behalf. Advocates are often those you work more closely with (coworkers, supervisors) who see the great work that you do and make sure you get the credit for it. A sponsor is someone who might make a phone call on your behalf or offer you their connections.
- Joining a mastermind group. Mastermind groups are big in entrepreneurial and personal development circles these days. A mastermind group is a facilitated, peer advisory group that meets regularly to work toward a common goal (i.e., I participate in and facilitate one for women entrepreneurs). If you can't find one to join, organize your own! Read more about mastermind groups here.
- Letting people know you're looking for a mentor. Professional matchmakers will tell you that if you are looking for a romantic relationship, you should tell everyone you know. Why? Beyond the whole "law of attraction" stuff, it's because by doing so you put people in your network on notice that this is something you desire. And it may even result in an introduction!
You further help them help you by telling them what qualities you're looking for in a potential partner: "I'm hoping to find someone who is musically inclined and shares my love of the outdoors." It's not an exhaustive list (which people will tune out anyway), but it's enough to give people some direction.
You can use a similar approach while you continue your search for a mentor. You can say something like, "I'm hoping to find a mentor that ____" (will help me learn the ins and outs of nonprofit management/has successfully navigated the med school application process/has made the transition from education to sales, etc.).
- Offer yourself as a living sacrifice. Just kidding … kind of. 😊 If you see a problem, offer to help. Become an unpaid apprentice. Identify a pain point that you can remedy, and offer to do so in exchange for a chance to get some exposure to what it is you're after. This approach involves a fair bit of hustle, but it can also pay huge dividends and allow you to leapfrog over other roles on the traditional career path.
One of my favorite stories from grad school was a guy from my program who needed to do an internship. He lived in southern Florida and there was a movie being shot in a neighborhood near him. He walked onto the set one day and offered to be the go-between for the movie people and the local businesses (who were being negatively impacted by how the movie production was hampering their ability to be open to the public). The production people didn't want to deal with the locals, so they gladly let him. Guess who's now working in Hollywood as a conflict management consultant for production companies?
- Hiring a career coach. This is a great way to really accelerate your career, ESPECIALLY if you've got a lot of big picture "what is my purpose anyway?" kinds of questions. A career coach is a neutral, supportive presence who is part cheerleader, part challenger. Career coaches are great for helping you create CLARITY about your next career steps. It won't be free, but if your trajectory isn't super clear, a mentor may not be what you need anyway. (MVSers interested in receiving free career coaching can contact Carmen for more info!)
Now, for any upper level, management, or executive types who are reading this, you might be saying, "Hey! I'd mentor someone!" My question to you is WHY AREN'T YOU? You don't need an engraved invitation to say to a younger person, "I see something in you, and I'd be happy to work with you on your career or professional development."
The takeaway is this: Just because no one wants to be your mentor doesn't mean people don't want to help you. Maybe, after reading this, you realize what you need most isn't a mentor but a sponsor. Or a coach. Or a therapist. Or a new hair stylist. Take your pick. The career development lexicon is always evolving.
There isn't just one, cookie-cutter approach to enlisting the support of others in your professional development. In the year it's taken me to grow out those bangs, I've learned that it's wise to truly consider the "why" behind what I think I want. Once you've identified what you truly need, the search to find it becomes less overwhelming. Depending on your circumstances, there could be a better path to the same result.