So, if you don't have one: sorry, and good luck. Just kidding. By my un-statistical analysis, almost every interview with or TED talk by a high-achieving person these days credits a mentor for that person’s success. And if you feel like you’re stunted or on a plateau in your life or career, one of the first things anyone seems to suggest these days is that you go scrounge up a mentor. But what does that even mean?
I started doubting the gospel of mentorship a few years ago after a good friend expressed frustration about not having someone who played that role in her life. We were in our early 20s and, professionally, she was doing objectively well at worst, at least in my opinion. She, however, felt like she wasn’t doing as well as anyone expected of her, including herself; she had no one to ask all those “dumb” questions no one wants to say aloud, and she needed advice from someone senior — someone who had come out alright on the other side of all this doubt — on how to handle the workplace politics unique to her job. The upshot of all these worries: She felt stuck. Without a mentor, she thought, how could she trust that she was doing anything right or well?
On one hand, I absolutely related to my friend. Who wouldn’t want a job guru/confessor who can flawlessly shepherd you through your career? Wouldn’t it be great, not to mention incredibly reassuring, to have a wise elder vet your questions and ideas before you threw them out there? Of course it would — but on the other hand, I doubt that most people ever get that; even if everyone should, I felt like my friend wasn’t giving herself enough credit for all the work she had already done.
Without a mentor, she thought, how could she trust that she was doing anything right or well?
Sure, she had room to grow, as most people do (seemingly forever), but what about all the things she seemed to feel like she couldn’t make happen without a mentor — such as finding new opportunities, negotiating workplace politics, and being amazing at her job? I truly believe she was already doing those things, and incredibly well. From my perspective, she didn’t need mentorship as much as she needed approval. It made me wonder if mentorship is promoted too often as an end-all, be-all goal — just some tool you "must" have in your arsenal, like a Tide to Go pen or a high-level Pokémon, regardless of what mentorship actually means. Debby Carreau, the founder of Inspired HR and the author of The Mentor Myth, agrees.
“There are two parallel times where I really started to question the value of mentorship,” she says. “I remember sitting around a table with a group of executives who were talking about developing certain people or helping them get ahead. Some were struggling with performance and others were high-potential [employees], but the solution to both was, ‘Let’s find them a mentor!’ It was this whole piece around mentorship becoming a catch-all phrase for career success.”
Carreau isn’t against mentorship — and neither am I. There are absolutely times when people might need a mentor to push themselves, or others, farther in service to a professional goal that’s just out of reach. But there’s a difference between working with someone else who is invested in your career to meet that goal...and placing all the responsibility for getting there on someone else. Doing so might initially feel very proactive, but there’s a big chance you’ll hate the results.
For example, a few months ago, someone I’d never met who lives in a different state and city than I do emailed to ask if I would be her mentor. I was one-third flattered, one-third impressed at her gutsiness, and one-third horrified. She hadn’t done anything wrong per se, and her email was as thoughtful and undemanding as it could feasibly be. The problem was me: If mentorship is supposed to be an intimate relationship in which one person helps another person toward a specific goal, how much could I do for a complete stranger? I didn’t know exactly what she needed, and she hadn’t articulated that either.
she didn’t need mentorship as much as she needed approval.
So I asked her what mentorship meant to her and what she was actually looking for, hopefully in a way as kind as her own email was. If all she wanted to do was have a few conversations about the work I’ve done so far, talk about what she was interested in, and maybe discuss what her future options might be, I was happy to do so. But if she wanted much-better advice from someone who could speak to her strengths, weak spots, professional likes, dislikes, and areas of curiosity, I figured that she might want to look for a mentor closer to home. It turned out that the former option was totally fine — and much more useful.
Carreau says some of the pressure to get a mentor, any mentor, can come from the proliferation of high-profile people standing on soapboxes and saying, “If it weren’t for my mentor so-and-so, I never would have gotten to where I am today.” But many of those relationships happen much more organically.
“People often reflect and say, ‘Oh, I had this mentor and that mentor,’ but it wasn’t mentorship like we think of it today, as a formal relationship," Carreau explains. "The person is just someone who helped them along, way back. They might not even know they were considered [a mentor].”
If you want that kind of relationship but don’t have a mentor yet, you can look toward other experiences as well. Carreau points out peer-mentoring circles such as the Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO) or the Lean In Circles community, in which local groups of women, generally eight to 12 people, serve as your “advisory board or board of directors.”
“What I like about these [options] is that a mentor is one data point, one person’s opinion. You’re getting lots of information to pull from, so that you can pick and choose which advice is right for you,” she explains. “Because we kind of forget that no one’s perfect, and if you don’t like the advice your mentor gives you, it’s awkward to both parties.”
Another place she says you can seek out productive, but lower-pressure mentorship experiences is through your industry, even if not directly through your workplace. For example, HR associations, CPA associations, bar associations, and more may produce great fonts of wisdom through in-depth appointments or speed-mentorship programs, which operate like speed dates.
“They’re great because you don’t have the awkward politics of your own workplace, but you get the industry perspective,” Carreau says. “You have to take personal control for your development and then supplement it with mentors and all those other pieces, rather than defaulting to: I need a mentor to make me successful.”
In other words, it's always great to have someone invested in you, whom you can lean on when times are tough, even in a professional sense. But until that person comes along, the next best option is to trust yourself and keep pushing forward.