Go to Menu Mentoring & Getting Mentored
By Nick Corcodilos

One of the fashionable things nowadays is to be a mentor. You know: a wise old coot who can spout wisdom to naïve young upstarts. Mentoring is such a popular human resources concept that employees in lots of companies are required to take on protégés whether they like it or not. Most mentoring programs I've seen, though born of good intentions, result in little more than awkward lunch meetings, because you can't really dictate how or whether two people will get along. (Don't get me wrong: there are also some very successful programs out there, but they're few and far between.) The problem, I believe, is that too many of these programs are institutionally controlled rather than freewheeling.

Mentoring is a subversive activity.
I see mentoring in a different way. To me, it's like the underground railroad. It's a way for people to free themselves from the systems and structures that their company (or industry, or profession) imposes on their growth and development. In fact, the more subversive it is, the better I like it. There's something special about someone from the inner circle feeding me advice – almost on the sly – without my employer's knowledge.

Face it: the social and organizational systems we build may create a better world, but ultimately it's our knowledge of how to work around those systems that allows us to create new, better systems. We accomplish that by sharing our insights and work-arounds with one another. Some of the most important mentoring we do helps others navigate past  obstacles “the system” puts in our way. So, I don't want my company managing how I get mentored, or by whom. I mean, if big brother is involved, how good could it be? Sorry, but this capitalist grew up in the Sixties.

In the larger scheme of things, mentoring is a way to enable a new, energetic generation to amplify your insider knowledge and to propagate its consequences through new domains. It's a way to influence the future. But no matter how you do it, keeping it simple is the key.

Do-it-yourself mentoring works best.
I think the simplest, most effective form of mentoring involves freely-given advice and assistance that's provided to people who want it, and those who ask for it are free to turn to the sources they trust most. (Do you really want to be assigned to Joe in Corporate Finance?) There are no rules or regulations about “what” or “how.” And, while it may be helpful to have a mentor for life, I think it helps to have many mentors.

The only thing you need to be a mentor is someone who would like your help. Of course, it also helps if you have useful assistance to share. To be mentored, you need someone who will take the time to share what he or she knows to help you along your path.

How's that for one guy's definition of mentoring? Kind of fits the notion of “no rules,” huh? Well, that's how I got mentored, and it worked, so I figure it's the only method I can recommend with enthusiasm.

My great mentor.
People often don't realize who their mentors are. I think that's most true when the mentor is a great one. You don't realize what's happening until it has an impact. Unfortunately, in some circles mentoring has become the kind of cold-blooded system for success that “networking” turned into after the great self-help authors got their hands on it. In that career development scheme, the upwardly mobile employee makes it a do-or-die task to find and seduce a mentor. But, the best mentors are those you run into, not the ones you seek out. Because like falling in love, mentoring creeps up on you. You suddenly realize that a casual discussion has turned into a profound relationship.

My mentor was a guy named Gene Webb. When Gene took me under his wing, I thought he was just my buddy: older, wiser and a great conversationalist, but just a buddy. Maybe he viewed me as just a buddy, too. But as the years have gone by and I've looked back at the time we spent together in person, on the phone and in letters (yes, we used snail mail), I realize that Gene truly was my mentor. How do I know? Because although he passed away a few years ago, I still hear Gene's voice when I'm trying to work through a difficult situation. When he was alive, I always trusted Gene to point me; to help me see the world (or whatever I was working on) in a different light. When I listen to that voice in my head, it's Gene and he still does that for me. But here's what made Gene a great mentor: he never imposed his ideas on me. Instead, he gave me the self-confidence to trust myself to pursue things on my own.

But, how's that different from just being a friend?

A mentor hones your potential.
A mentor is different from a friend because a mentor sees your potential and helps you develop it. He’s aware that he knows more than you do, but he never acts like a know-it-all. He sees that you're capable of learning from him and gives you the leeway to learn at your own pace, not his. In other words, he genuinely wants to let you use his knowledge without acting like he's your father. He's not trying to teach you lessons. Instead, he lays out all he has to offer and lets you choose what you're ready to use. This is generosity of the highest order.

Gene never gave me instruction in anything. When I needed contacts, he introduced me to people he knew. When I wasn't sure what to do with my career, he talked about his harebrained ideas and entertained mine. He let me watch him think; his critical faculties were among the sharpest I've ever seen. When I'd experienced a failure or two and I let my goals become pedestrian, he shared stories about dining with then Secretary of State George Shultz and about attending G. Gordon Liddy's wedding. He invited me to watch the Super Bowl at his home with Tom Peters. Among his friends, legend had it that there wasn't anyone Gene didn't know, and I still believe it. He didn't introduce me to all his famous buddies, but he told me about them: stories that shaped my perception of what it means to be successful, smart, talented, productive, righteous, honest, caring and worldly. Lots of other fine people have helped me; but the voice I hear in my head when I'm grappling with a challenge is usually Gene's.

I guess the most important mentorly thing Gene did for me was to let me hang out with him – in person, on the phone or by mail. He answered my questions, and he helped me ask more.

How can I be a mentor if I've never done it before?
You've been a mentor whether you know it or not. You've been a mentor if you've ever:

  • shown a junior staffer how to do his work more efficiently;
  • counseled him about how to ask the boss for a promotion or a raise;
  • closed your door and let a co-worker vent about his problems;
  • spent a little extra time interviewing a naive job candidate;
  • explained to your neighbor's kid what it's like to be in your line of work.

Mentoring doesn't have to be a planned, organized, structured relationship. You don't have to carry a card that says you're a mentor, and you don't have to meet every Tuesday at 3 p.m. with the person you're helping. It's nice if you can, but life doesn't often allow for that. Gene and I used to get together for lunch strictly on the spur of the moment, maybe three or four times a year. That was good. I've been mentoring people on Ask The Headhunter since January 1995, and I usually don't hear from the people I help more than once. How do I know, then, that my advice is helping anyone?

Well, I know that I don't have to be everyone's Gene Webb. If I get to be one person's Gene Webb in all my life, that'll be nice. But if I can be someone's Gene Webb for just a few minutes, I figure I've continued a fine tradition.

At first, on Ask The Headhunter, I used to get an e-mail (or a message board posting) from a grateful reader I'd advised. This would happen perhaps once a month. Then the acknowledgments got more frequent. After a while, as readership grew, people not only dropped notes, they'd tell me in great detail exactly how my advice paid off for them. Some write to tell me I've changed their lives; made it possible to send their kids to better schools; helped them start their own businesses; enabled them to make dramatic career changes. (This is starting to sound like a multi-level-marketing pitch, isn't it?) Today, I get acknowledgments, thank you's, praise – even offers for gifts of single malt scotch (though a great temptation, I never accept) – on an almost daily basis. Most of these communications come from people I advised only once on a public message board.

I'm not telling you this to puff myself up. I'm telling you because I want you to recognize what an impact you can have on other people's lives, even if you offer just a bit of help now and then. From my own experience, I know that good mentoring need not involve anything more than a single, thoughtful reply to a person who asks for help. That's how I know you can be a good mentor if you want to be.

Send a buck to the name at the top of the list.
Now for the big secret about mentoring: it really is a multi-level-marketing scheme. I'm trying to hook you, and I want you to recruit everyone you help. When someone asks how they can repay what little help I've been able to give them, here's what I tell them:

“The next time you meet someone who needs help at a time when you have help to give, give it – and you've repaid me. Ask them to do the same. Keep it going around. It makes the world a better place, and that's a benefit to me. Besides, this way I don't need to keep accounts. Can I trust you to do that?”

Suggestions for mentors.
It's up to you how you want to help others. Here are my own ideas about what makes a mentor helpful. If this list is any guidance, great. If it isn't, make up some rules of your own.

Good mentors:

  • Aren't gods. They could be you, but they're just a few years farther down the road.
  • Don't try to always have an answer. They suggest resources.
  • Don't provide solutions to your problems. They introduce you to possibilities and to people.
  • Don't have their own agendas. They focus on you.
  • Don't expect you to “get it” immediately. They plant seeds that blossom only in good time.
  • Don't keep score. They expose you to ideas, but don't require that you accept their suggestions or that you return the favor.
  • Don't always pick up the tab for lunch. (Gene and I always tossed a coin. For three years, I lost the toss every time.)

A few cautions if you're looking for help.
Because it's a relationship, mentoring doesn't always work. Don't let that frustrate you. Remember that when someone offers to help you, they're not making any promises – they're just extending a hand. A mentor may not want to advise you more than once; respect that. If a mentor offers more, you need to make a judgment about whether you want more interaction or not.

  • A mentor can't be your savior; he's just trying to lend a hand.
  • Don't expect anything from a mentor, but glean what you can.
  • A mentor has no responsibility for you. At most, he or she is responsible for being honest and caring.
  • A mentor may have a hidden agenda. Be a little wary.
  • A mentor probably doesn't have a vested interest in your career or your life. If his or her advice requires you to take a risk, stop and evaluate that advice critically.
  • A mentor can change your life.
  • The decisions you make are ultimately yours.

You must decide whether you trust and respect the person who has offered to help you. Just because someone is more senior than you or more experienced doesn't mean he's right, or that you will benefit from his suggestions. Sometimes it helps to get a second opinion. It's your life; your judgment is always required.

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