In this article I want to address the fundamental question of finding a great mentor. Unless you have a mentor, the odds are against you: it will be damn hard to score deals or get promoted. If you happen to have a mentor, your success is tied to the success of your mentor. It is your job to help th mentor become great. Nowhere it is as clear as in the workplace. Today, I suggest that you take a look at the articles here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Whom do we meet at work?
Let us face it: most of us spend most of our time at work. Different kinds of jobs allow us to mingle with different people. I will share a couple of examples.
A position in a university or a research laboratory provides easy access to the best experts, scientists, consultants and occasionally entrepreneurs in our field. The graduate degrees are not only good for learning, but also for making the right connections. A teaching position allows us to meet all kinds of students. Some of them will probably succeed over time and remember their teachers. Others may teach us a valuable lesson, reflecting their perspectives over the things that we teach. Other teachers are typically focused on mentoring, and will enjoy sharing their experience. If you want to boost your career, stay a bit longer in academic circles.
Technological positions typically come with a very friendly and helpful community of peers, who are focused on each other’s success, like a family. Each team member typically brings a unique experience, expertise, focus, and approach to life. Most people are willing to share, as you have very similar interests. Typically there is very little rivalry, as the rivalry can be bad for the teamwork. As people drift to new jobs, they want to bring along the people they relied on in the past. The warmest and kindest interpersonal relationships I ever had at work were in technological positions.
Management positions bring you in contact with all kinds of people. There are professional consultants and experts, who know everything about their job an very little about everything else. Alternatively, there are other managers who come from very different backgrounds. There is a strong sense of competitive drive. Your boss may easily be the only person you can truly learn from, and be honest with. He relies on you to deliver, as much as you rely on him. Your peers will be negotiating resources with you, sometimes joining you and other times joining against you. There is nothing wrong learning from the competition. The strongest competitors often become the best friends. Great managers often combine inspiring charisma and a high level of discipline.
Consultant positions are kind of tricky. Everybody expects you to be the authority on your thing, and if you are not good enough you simply end up out of business. However, you can have a support network of other consultants with slightly different expertise, sharing the clients with you. In fact, unless you are incredibly lucky, you cannot get enough clients without such a network. Typically, to be successful in a consultant position a person needs to be first of all a great networker, and only then an expert.
The right mentor material
Anyone can mentor you: an experienced peer, inspiring students, a teacher who understands his calling, a consultant with strong networking skills. However, the best mentor would often be your boss. What are the key elements to successful mentoring?
First of all, there needs to be some sort of interpersonal chemistry. You and your mentor should be comfortable with each other moreover it is best if the relationships are somewhere between formal and informal: there should always be a lot of respect and correctness, yet there should be no fear to speak frankly. While the mentor-protege connection is worthwhile for both parties, the emotional reward should ideally outweigh other forms of reward.
Next, the mentor should be able to teach you something valuable. This is not very hard since people are different and most of us can teach each other A LOT. The trick is in matching: the mentor should be willing to teach just the thing that we want to learn. Knowledge and experience are necessary but hardly sufficient. The mentor might be unwilling to deal with a particular issue for a myriad of reasons. He may be protective of his secret, unsure of his own control, incapable to articulate the specific information and intuition, tired of the particular subject and so on. Even worth, the mentor may be unwilling to accept his own limitations, trying to sell you something that is a part of his agenda and not necessarily helpful for you.
Finally, we often rely on mentors to help us open the doors and pull us along in their ascent. Good mentors typically are both good professionals and nice people, which does not hurt when rising through the career ladder. Teaming up with a good mentor increases the odds of career progress together with the mentor. The progress is rarely immediate since the mentor must ensure his own position, but more of long-term strategic advantage. It definitely helps to have multiple mentors and patience.
The hard work and motivation
Mentors tend to value hard work and motivation. There are many reasons for it. First of all, simply having the protegee around in the office allows more opportunities for meaningful communication. After all, communication is the key to good mentorship.
Next, mentors rely on their protegee for the hardest tasks around. They have every reason to do this. The good communication ensures they will be able to help the protegee in time of need, and understand the need in time. The personal commitment means the protegee will do his part even if inconvenient. The training they have done with the protegee improves the chances the protegee will find a good solution. The mentors invest a lot in their protegee and this investment should pay off in crisis, otherwise, why should they bother?
The motivation of the protegee often reminds the mentors of the excitement they had long ago. This excitement is contagious and inspiring. Mentors are often tired of the things they do best. They do not even notice them, as they can do these activities effortlessly. Focusing on the things mentors do best, often are good for the mentors’ self-esteem, and their own motivation. I have many times seen top management forget all about their meetings and presentations, diving deeply into the technological challenges presented by their protegee. These challenges are often the reason they work, not the boring reports or specifications they need to submit.
Why your boss could be the best mentor
Now we get back to the title. Who is always around you, communicating with you every day, interested in your success almost as much as you are? Your boss has every reason to help you, even more so if he has interviewed a hundred people and chosen you for the job. Quite likely he has the professional knowledge sufficient to communicate with you and teach you a thing or two. Your boss has already proven his ability to rise through the ranks at least once, he can probably deliver again in the future. If you work hard and are highly motivated you want your boss to notice and mentor you. Now, what kind of mentorship do you need?
Your boss as your friend
The boss will supply enough guideline for you to do a good job, and he can also be a friend. Most people are afraid to open up in front of their bosses and discuss their weaknesses and personal issues. This is partially right because the boss will see in personal issues something he needs to fix one way or another. On the other hand, he will be sensitive for the issues he knows about both in planning and in execution. Moreover, all of us need to fix some personal issues, so we may use the help we can get. Quite possibly your boss had to overcome similar issues, including stress, work-home imbalance, loss of focus and boring meetings during siesta hours. If you make a compelling argument, you may get better meeting hours, interesting task allocation and a chance to go home early if there is no urgent assignment. Your boss may secure the resources needed for your success.
Sharing your hobbies and passions with your boss might be a good way to build good informal relationships. Your boss may read similar books, meditate on weekends, or be passionate about the same sports or music. Having something fun to talk about always helps. Quite likely, your boss will have many hobbies and interests, as he needed to build interpersonal connections with many people. If not, you may have a similar family status and discuss fun weekend activities with the family.
When promoted a manager may be asked to appoint a successor. There are several useful strategies the manager can use. He can promote someone from within the group, based on political shrewdness, leadership potential, and trust. This can be simple as the person is very familiar with his job but potentially may spark many conflicts with the coworkers. Also, in a good team, no team member wants to be the boss, as this means some awkward distance between yourself and your friends. Alternatively, he may bring in someone from outside the company, like his protegee from a previous job. Typically this works fine, as long as such protegee is available (a tip: be available for your boss from a previous job). So quite often, he will secure the protegee of his own protegee. And this is the biggest advantage of being someone’s protegee: your next job might be under his own mentor.
Having your boss as your mentor has many perks, especially in terms of simplicity. You do not need to do anything to stand out: he is already focused on you. Throw away unnecessary gizmos, and keep only the ones you truly use. You do not need to come up with a million options, as you can easily brainstorm with your boss. There is no need to be happy all the time, as your boss will secure you the resources that you need for balanced and successful work. Do not look busy, as your boss will appreciate your work output. On the downside, your shortcomings and limitations will also be painfully visible to your boss. If you are a toxic person, your career will suffer and you may lose your job. The awards and punishments get much more transparent when your boss is your mentor. Try to observe yourself from the point of view of an outside observer, and make sure to become a better person. This is one of the keys to your success.
When anxious, most people procrastinate and delay. When bored, you can get unfocused. This is unacceptable in most professional environments. Mentors often use greed, fear, and flattery. Not because they have to, but because their own arsenal is limited. Your mentor needs to motivate you for top performance, rather than make you happier. Therefore, he will likely take you out of your comfort zone, challenge you and stress you. A great mentor will make you feel just the right amount of anxiety for the best possible results. And if the mentor is not sensitive enough, he may cause too much anxiety or calm you to the point when you start losing touch with reality. I have experienced both extremes first-hand with great mentors. They disappeared as I started to communicate my feelings with direct, immediate and transparent feedback. For a protegee, this is a hard skill to master, and it took me many years to do that. Having your boss as your mentor is like giving the person a license to manipulate you for your own good, and there is no way back. You should really trust your boss to accept him as your mentor.
We all need mentors to succeed. Most of our mentors often happen to be our bosses at some stage of our lives. This might be wonderful, or inconvenient, based on our sincerity, our true needs, and the communication with the boss. If you want, you can have other mentors, including your peers, advisors, and students. Still, the most direct mentorship at home is with your parents, and at work with your boss.