Like most other relationships, the process of finding the right mentor (and even mentee) is a complex one. It is, after all, a relationship that needs chemistry, camaraderie, openness, and most importantly, deep respect for each other’s value systems and skills. Such healthy equations are not easy to come by. A good mentor has the potential to not only help you become your best professional self but also add new dimensions to your outlook towards life, work, and learning.
When looking for a mentor, it is important that you don’t just look for someone whose career graph has been stellar. There are several other qualities that go into the making of an effective mentor. Here are some of them:
Ideally, a mentor must be someone who has been in the trenches and has worldly experience to guide you and set you in the right direction. Typically, a successful or veteran entrepreneur is an ideal mentor, as they can help you get comfortable with the industry ropes. With many battles fought within the industry and the necessary attitude to get around obstacles, their infinite wisdom – gained from years of vast experience – makes them eminently suitable for the role. So whether it be scaling, merging, or operational guidance, you need to have a battle-ready veteran who has mastered the art of corporate diplomacy and warfare.
It is easy for mentorship conversations to quickly devolve into rant sessions. But they are not meant to be similar to office smoke breaks and water cooler chats. Good mentors should be able to inculcate a positive thought process to help their mentees make the most of every situation – even the difficult ones that nobody has any control over. Take the case of something as nerve-wracking as approaching investors for funding propositions. Now if it is your first time, then you are bound to break into a sweat more than a few times. This is why you need a mentor in tow who can calm your nerves and be the assurance that both you and the investor needs. More importantly, mentors demonstrate this positive thought process themselves and become the role models their mentees need.
This is perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of being a mentor. Positive energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and both entrepreneurs and employees need that dollop of excitement, especially when putting in long hours for days on end. This where a mentor can come in with his/her quirk, wit, and even stories of struggles and triumphs. All of this pitches into the enthusiasm and motivation of the organisation. In light of this, jaded mentors can do more harm than good. If they are not enthusiastic or passionate about the field of work you are both in, they might bring down your spirits too.
After a certain point in one’s career, the role of the mentor is limited in terms of technical skills. At this juncture, what entrepreneurs need is someone who can show them how to handle difficult conversations or overcome rough patches, reflect on what it takes to succeed in both short- and long-term, and be able to pass on this knowledge in a nuanced manner. Many successful professionals do all the right things but are unable to articulate the reasons for their success because they have never reflected upon them. Some see their way of doing things as the only path to success, without being nuanced about individual conditionings and backgrounds, personality types, and life priorities. In this context, Steven Spielberg’s comment on the art of mentorship strikes the nail right on the head. He says,
“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
You want to find someone who understands belief systems and behavioural patterns that lead to success, even if they are expressed differently in different situations by different people. A simple example of this is the case of two hardworking and committed professionals. One might be the kind that takes no leave and spends little time outside of work. The other might strive for an ideal balance, even as he/she gives their best in the hours they spend at work. A good mentor will see that the only value that matters to both professionals is that both of them are committed to getting the job done.
A mentor should be someone who pushes you to constantly engage yourself and motivates you to become the best professional self. So he/she should be able to voice both negative and positive feedback on your work and behaviour in an objective manner. Neither overt niceness nor “brutal” honesty work in mentor-mentee relationships. You want to come out of your mentor conversations having learnt something new but not defensive or upset. As Cathy Engelbert, CEO, Deloitte puts it, “Seek out a personal coach or mentor in the workplace. He/she should push you when you need it by encouraging and motivating you. Don’t be afraid of their honesty.”
Only a mentor who feels strongly about your career aspirations will take the time to listen deeply and impart well-thought-out advice. A good mentor knows that that is the only way to earn credibility and trust from his/her mentees. When the core beliefs of the mentor and mentee are in sync, the mentoring will bear fruit and a serious outcome can be expected of the time and efforts invested. In the words of Indian-American technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa,
“What you want in a mentor is someone who truly cares about you and who will look after your interests and not just their own. When you do come across the right person to mentor you, start by showing them that the time they spend with you is worthwhile.”
All of this being said, a healthy and effective mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street. As a mentor, you should expect your mentee to display all the attributes that would help your career growth. On the flip side, it is also important that mentees demonstrate openness to learning and fresh perspectives and deep respect for your mentor’s experiences and skills.