Mentorship Redux

Think of the classic mentor/protege relationship. Your mind may conjure up images of the benevolent, caring tutor and the eager, receptive student in a perfect give and take. A friendly, healthy exchange of ideas and wisdom. Sounds idyllic…

But the truth is, this scenario might not be ideal for your professional development. Having a mentor is a privilege that most people, unfortunately, don’t get to enjoy. But given the opportunity, is the best choice a mentor who validates your current assumptions and reinforces the way you already work?

We all know that things that “just feel right” or make us comfortable are often the worst things for us. So don’t settle. Move between mentors if needed. If you’re not challenged, it’s time to move on.

This isn’t to suggest that you should only pursue a mentor who doesn’t feel right or makes you feel uncomfortable. But take a moment and look outside of your comfort zone. Identify someone who can provide cold, hard advice, or steer you toward a path you might not have taken otherwise. You want to sharpen and diversify your skill set.

Consider seeking out someone at work who challenges your sensibilities, upends your idea of how things are supposed to be done—maybe even someone who flat-out frightens you.

Look for a mentor who’ll make you step up your game, who sets you back on your heels—someone who exhibits behaviors that you find professionally admirable, but difficult to imagine in yourself: shrewdness, unflappability, assertiveness. Does anyone in particular come to mind? Float the idea by them and see how they respond. People who scare others away often make the best mentors.

The question for many is “Who do I choose?” or “Where do I turn?” For those who work in mid- to large-sized companies, there are most likely opportunities within for mentoring partnerships. For telecommuters or people who work remotely, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a mentor who’s willing to pair up remotely. It’s more common practice than you’d think.

In fact, many large international companies, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have distance mentoring programs built into their learning and development systems. With hundreds of thousands of employees dispersed across the globe, sharing knowledge resources and leveraging in-house expertise across the company network makes perfect sense. It improves company culture and increases retention and engagement.

For the self-employed or small business owner with few connections, you’ll find no shortage of resources online. The reason mentorships are so desirable is that they aren’t just a winning proposition for the mentee. It’s a two-way street; the mentor has everything to gain as well. Teaching can be incredibly rewarding and there is as much to be gained by the mentor.

The ideal mentor/mentee relationship is one that balances harmony with tension, forces us to be creative, and helps us grow to become something greater than what we’d be otherwise.

Christopher Wofford is Digital Media Producer and host of WebSeries at eCornell.
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