How many mentors do you have in your life? Real mentors. People successful in their own right, but who also believe there is room at the top and offer expertise to help you and others get there?
Or do you feel you are surrounded by people more willing to pull up a lawn chair and laugh at the miserable failures in your life?
Do you have people who are there for you in bad times or when you are a failure, but then disappear when you start becoming successful?
Do true mentors still exist or is giving professional guidance a thing of the past?
Why we Crave Mentorship
Some people never grew up with parents who held their hands, guided them, genuinely cared about their success, etc. They lack confidence. Social anxiety is common these days because we have whole generations being raised without people in their lives who give a damn. Actually, really, truly give a damn.
So many times, I’ve worked with people I admired and have looked up to as mentors. I asked lots of questions and begged for more responsibilities. To me, I would see someone below me asking for more knowledge as a blessing. Why wouldn’t you want to be surrounded with people on missions of personal growth? Doesn’t this make for happier people and a better environment? Being under the same umbrella of organization, aren’t we on the same team? Do we not have the shared goal to advance our company above all?
But some people see proactivity in others as a threat. They gravitate towards almost Machiavellian tactics. It’s not about the company. It’s not about being a good person and mentoring another. It’s about personal success, wealth, slithering their way to the top, claiming a crown, adorning themselves in achievements.
Heaven help those of us who have good hearts and think we can succeed in the work world through our smarts, integrity, kindness and agreeability.
Today’s global employment network isn’t made for people like us. We are not willing to lie, cheat and steal to gain empowerment. We don’t want to step on others to get ahead and use people. We crave mentorship because we have an old-fashioned notion that people want to help others because of their virtues and because they find us deserving. We want mentors. We crave the ability to accept an award for our achievements someday and point to our mentor in the crowd and say, “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Let’s be clear; A mentor is not a “life coach”. It’s not someone who asks us to pay them for counseling sessions, their ebook, their podcast, their course on how to win at life. A mentor is not Tony Robbins preaching at us from a stage, pacing and cussing about how we need to get our crap together (although this can be useful).
A mentor is a relationship – Someone one-on-one devoted to our success out of the goodness of their heart, a love for a cause or objective bigger than themselves which you could help with, or maybe even a selfish motive of getting some credit or positive accolades back to their name, someday, when you bloom into who you are meant to be. There are role models, life coaches, motivators, etc. and we must be clear on their differences.
Of all these, mentors are the most personal because they take a personal interest in you. We want this central person to be our voice of reason. We want their expertise and their guidance. We feel lost in the workplace and world at large and see our mentors as people who have figured it out enough to gain admirability. In a world where it’s become not cool to have role models, we realize in the workplace and in career pursuits, we still need them. We need goals to aspire to and people who have forged paths before us who make us believe it’s possible. We need mentors because we don’t fully trust ourselves and will always seek a voice of reason. We want to hear about their stories, know them, learn from their successes and failures. To us, they are worthy and admirable.
Sounds pretty flattering, right?
The Pain of Failed Mentorship
Every day, I used to go into Sally’s office, whose job I was labeled as an “assistant” to. We would talk about personal stuff, work stuff, and I would volunteer to take more off her plate. Sally gladly handed me the tedium she didn’t want to deal with.
Certainly, phone calls were one of those tediums. So I ended up taking 90% of Sally’s calls. Balancing this with all the paperwork I was supposed to be doing was a challenge.
But I had a goal – First, I wanted Sally to like me. Purely and genuinely. Not because of any ulterior motive. I liked her. As a person, I thought she was charismatic, fun, motivating and brightened the room. Then, I wanted her to teach me the ropes. I was mid-career and had no idea where I was going in my life, but I wanted direction. I wanted to get to that next step. I wanted to be respected, too, eventually. I didn’t want to be someone’s 60 year-old assistant someday.
But Sally had me firmly sealed in a corner. After years as her assistant, I watched the CEO of the company bring in new managers equal to Sally and wondered why I wasn’t getting promoted. I liked Sally, but I couldn’t help notice she spent more and more time out of the office and my desk was piling up with her work. I wasn’t getting a raise. I wasn’t getting a promotion. I was getting the shaft and everybody in the company knew it and made it a point to tell me so.
I went into the Big Boss’s office and asked him what his plans were for me. I asked him straight out if I was a permanent assistant to Sally. He said she couldn’t do it without me and would be devastated if I moved on. I told him I liked Sally, but I didn’t want to be an assistant the rest of my career. His eyes narrowed as he appraised me and told me he didn’t think I was good enough. He said Sally had complaints about my work.
I left his office infuriated. The one person I considered a mentor had complaints? I had worked day and night trying to make her look good. There wasn’t a single deserved complaint about my level of effort. I turned out work above and beyond expectations and I knew it. So, completely disheartened, I left the company and took a promotion with another company.
Shortly after I left, Sally was fired. I was the crutch she leaned on and she couldn’t make do without me. Having not been properly mentored, within six weeks at the new company, I quickly realized I was over my head in the management role with the new company and resigned my position.
Had Sally mentored me, I probably would have happily been her assistant for more years as I learned more. When I was ready, she could have put in a good word and I could have been promoted. I could have properly trained her new assistant to be everything she needed. The company could have maintained its forward motion and we could have overtaken our competitors. Easily.
How much is lost when people who are good at what they do operate compartmentalized and do not mentor their peers to become better than they are?
The Fear of Mentoring
While Sally threw all her tedious projects my way, I couldn’t help but notice she closely guarded certain aspects of her job. When I volunteered to help, she consistently told me she would take care of it.
At first, I thought nothing of all this and then I started seeing that Sally may actually consider me a threat. I found this laughable because nothing I offered could beat her experience. The field I worked in is faced with daily challenges. The only way you can truly be considered a “success” in the field is to be the most experienced. Only when you have handled all these challenges multiple times, do you become an old, seasoned pro who knows how to handle things each time because you dealt with all the ramifications of your decisions from the last time it happened.
I knew this. But perhaps she worried the head boss might not know this and may boot her to the curb in favor of shinier, younger, newer talent whom he could pay far less than what he was paying her. Maybe her fears were justified.
There is a lot of fear when it comes to mentoring. What if the person you mentor stabs you in the back and takes your job? What if the person you mentor isn’t thankful? What’s in it for you? What if you don’t have it all figured out yourself and this person is looking at you like you are Yoda, waiting for you to dispense wise advice you just don’t have? Are you even a mentor in the first place?
Most people don’t come right out and call you a mentor. They just casually seek your advice on a consistent basis. If so, it’s safe to assume they consider you somewhat of a mentor. Don’t make them feel stupid for asking you. It’s a huge compliment.
Maybe you are the one with a junior colleague who always seems to be coming to you for career advice. Don’t be afraid to be a mentor. No, you don’t know it all and that’s okay. Being a know-it-all is not required. But dispensing what you do know and offering an educated opinion is why you are being looked up to and asked for guidance.
The Death of Mentorship
There are many warnings out there.
“Those who can’t do, teach” and those who closely guard secrets to success are wise.
But in reality, those who find ways to make life easier, who gain knowledge and sit on it, whose ego and greed become a sadistic need to hide gifts so other people may not gain from them – tend to become the very worst people of all.
We are not talking the formula for Coca-Cola here.
We are talking basic professionals refusing to mentor junior associates out of sheer greed. We are talking people with the need to hold all cards close to their chest so that when they leave a company, the company can’t function without them. This is the new screed, the new way of doing things.
You may hear people are too busy to be mentors now, but this simply isn’t true. We have the same number of hours in the day as we always have. Mentoring doesn’t mean a mentor has to give constant pep talks. A mentor can gently guide in minutes. But some things in society have changed…
Ask a child who their role models are and most of the time, you might get a confused “I don’t know” – As narcissism and self-obsession have grown in our culture, we have started asking others for their opinions less and less. We know it all now. why would we ask someone else for an opinion? That’s what Google is for.
We live in a society where everyone’s personal demons are now front page news instead of tabloid fodder. We’ve seen Presidents disgraced, celebrities live flawed lives, sports figures jailed…Who is there left to admire? And how long before the people we admire screw up? Look hard enough at anyone, and you’ll find something about them to be disappointed about.
Who could possibly mentor you when all the mentors and role models are tarnished, imperfect in every way, or flawed?
We live in a time of ugliness on the cusp of the greatest beauty when we finally learn to accept flaws exist and shape the human experience more than anything else. Maybe we will learn mentors are sometimes people who have walked through fire, committed the greatest mistakes, and haven’t led pure and unblemished lives.
Mentorship was dying, but will flourish again. The rise of Machiavellian get-rich-quick schemes, narcissism and the sabotage of those on the path to success will be discovered to be miserable living. The era of wealth and excess led us to this point of selfishness, but a society can not sustain itself on self absorption.
We need mentors. We need the people willing to take others under their wing. We need those who see others struggling with anxiety and lack of confidence who will take two seconds of their day to set them on the right path with words of wisdom. We need those people who believe in us and bring out the best in us.
A company stacked with mentors is a company stacked for success.
Mentors shape our world. We need more people not afraid to be mentors and if you are lucky enough to be mentored, never take for granted the fact that somebody cared enough to assist you with your success. Give accolades where they are due and pass it on.