“Will you be my mentor?” Every time I hear this phrase, I can’t help but think about the children’s book, Are You My Mother? In the book, a bird who has fallen out of its nest wanders around searching for its mother. The bird asks everything it encounters, including a piece of machinery, “are you my mother?”
While the bird in this story is young and still in need of a mother and thus compelled to find her, young women are instead TOLD they need a mentor. There are various reasons why women are told to get a mentor – usually the argument is that men are often formally and informally mentored by other men and already have a leg-up. Dozens of articles are written on this subject so I won’t dwell on it long.
And there’s no doubt that having a mentor is beneficial, not just for the mentee, but for the mentor as well. But I have a problem with the narrative of constantly telling young women they need mentors. An unrealistic pressure is placed on women to find this magical, mythical unicorn mentor. It enforces a rigid expectation of what the mentor-mentee relationship will look like – the mentor knows all, the mentee learns and does exactly as the mentor says.
My goal with this post is to dispel the myth that you NEED a mentor and offer alternatives to a mentor-mentee relationship.
What Can a Mentor Do For You?
I’m definitely not knocking mentors in the post. My goal is to let you know that, mentor or not, you’re great and can achieve great things! A mentor can be a great resource. Ideally, a mentor is someone in your field, in a more senior position, and has your best interests at heart. Mentors generally have a wide network and connections due to their length of time in the field. Obviously, mentors sound like a great thing! I think the trouble comes when you try to force a mentor relationship or find a mentor that is not looking out for your best interests. A mentor relationship should happen naturally. Pick someone you trust and know fairly well. I do recommend directly asking this person to be your mentor. This will establish the relationship firmly as a mentor-mentee relationship and acknowledge that there’s a responsibility of both parties to communicate and spend time together focused on your professional questions.
Alternatives to a Mentor
Finding a mentor is definitely not an easy task and it may take a ton of time to find someone who is the right fit. Don’t panic! There are many options to finding the same benefits a mentor provides, such as people who have your best interests in mind, have experience, or know about your field, without forcing a mentor-mentee relationship. Here are my top choices:
Personally, I feel more comfortable talking to people my age who are in the same stage of life. Just the sheer comfort factor may help you better engage in conversations about professional development, life choices, and opportunities. The key to effective peer mentoring is finding someone who is trustworthy and reliable (and won’t let you get off-topic on the latest reality TV). I think you also need to find someone who needs mentoring as well, so that the relationship isn’t one-sided. You should both set goals on what you want out of the mentoring and think outside the box about how to get perspectives of more established professionals. Perhaps you can both invite a senior professional to coffee or attend a presentation by upper-level employees in your field.
Personal Board of Directors
This is my favorite method and one I employ in my own life. Rather than having one person I engage as a mentor, I reach out to several people in my life for advice. The multiple perspectives and experiences are crowd-sourced into input for my own question, problem or opportunity. If everyone tells me I shouldn’t do something, I know it’s probably a bad idea. On more complicated problems, I receive advice with many perspectives that allows me to choose what path might work best for me. I’m very much in flux in my personal and professional life, so this allows me to draw on experiences from various fields and life stages.
I mention this option with a word of caution. Mastermind groups can easily turn into salesy, ineffective groups. Be sure to pick a group with a focus and a determined leader. Strong leaders can help direct your group based on everyone’s needs and limit the salesy nature of some groups. The great thing about mastermind groups is that they are designed to bring together folks with similar interests or fields to think about their business and professional development.
This is what I dream I will have one day. When you think about an agent, your mind might conjure up Beyonce, Matt Smith, or some other famous celeb. But what about getting your own agent? Let’s think about what an agent does. An agent fields offers from various professional opportunities and gives you their advice on whether to take said opportunities. This is why Beyonce performs at the Super Bowl instead of hosting daytime television. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could help you determine which opportunities to take? This kind of mentorship can work well whatever your stage of career, but it’s great for folks who are in high demand as you might be offered many opportunities, but need advice on which will best meet your career goals.
Whatever route you choose, I hope these options have provided you with a few ideas for professional development opportunities that make the most sense for you.
About the author: Carolyn Noe is the Executive Director of Super Heroines, Etc. She just moved to Cincinnati with her fiancé, and her dog Darcy. They are currently binging Orphan Black and prepping for their Parks & Rec themed wedding in May. Send her positive vibes on Twitter (@cnoeone) or Instagram (@longdistancedining) while she’s settling into her new life!