Dancing With Mentors

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Mentors are a hot topic. But finding a mentor and working with one is a little more complicated. It would seem an easy enough transaction. During our careers, especially early on, we need guidance and counsel about how to be effective and how to navigate through organizations. Who better to do that than a mentor? Someone who has been there, done that. We need someone who can be inspirational and all knowing at the same time. Think Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Mr. Miyagi in the cubicle next to yours and always available.

Forget Obi-Wan. The cubicle next door is more likely to house a stream of people wearing headphones who don’t know you exist. And the truth is, Yoda or Mr. Miyagi rarely exist at work. So the Mentor Dance begins.

The mentee can’t take the lead in the dance; there are just too many questions. Like the first dance with a partner, questions from mentee to mentor are awkward. What dance will we do? What if there is no chemistry? Will it be a coaching relationship? (You can finish this project!) Will it be a counselor kind of thing? (How do you feel about that?) Will it be a directive relationship? (OK, do this, then this…) The questions can make us shy to seek a mentor.

The mentor has a lot of questions too. Do I have the time to do this right? (Probably not.) Does anyone really care? (Probably not.) Is this like an extracurricular activity? (Probably so.) I don’t have a mentor, why should I be one? (HR says so.) What if I don’t like my mentee, can I opt out or trade for a different one? Everyone is too busy and the questions can make us reticent to serve as a mentor.

So many questions, so many mentees, and so few mentors.

Everyone tells us we need one. We all want one but it’s hard to find one. It’s too the point where both Mentors and Mentees can feel a little guilty if not part of the “dance”. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells all of us that we should be mentors and if you don’t have one, find one. More guilt.

My solution? Until you are able to find the ideal mentor, pick a virtual one depending on the situation.

For example, when faced with a desperate situation, ask yourself what would Abraham Lincoln do? Or how would Meryl Streep react to so much attention?

They may never know it, but lots of people dead and alive are acting like mentors every day. And at a time when mentors are hard to find it might be the best you can do. And virtual mentors can be good temporary dance partners.

I have been lucky along the way with my live mentors. Each of them knew me well, spent time with me and did not hesitate to give positive and negative feedback.

Good luck hunting and dancing.

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