We all have a picture in our minds of what the ideal mentor/mentee relationship looks like, whether it’s in the workplace, sports, movies, or fiction. What comes to your mind? Perhaps it’s Max Talmud and Einstein; Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams; Harry Potter and Professor Dumbledore; or Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker. For everyone, the ideal is just a bit unique.
“It’s important to have a mentor for support and guidance in decision-making, actions, and personal and professional growth,” says Dr. Phyllis King, Associate Vice Chancellor and Vice Provost for Partnerships & Initiatives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The mentee is able to learn from someone who has been there, done that, and learned how to effectively handle similar situations. The mentor often has a network and can open doors of opportunities to the mentee by making valuable connections and growing their social capital and mobility.”
But how does it play out in real life?
“Being a mentor is part of my DNA,” King explains. “It is extremely rewarding to me to know that I can contribute to the success of others. The friendships that I have gained through mentoring have been long-lasting … There is comfort in knowing there are people in the community that support you and can serve as a resource when in need.”
In 2018, King received a mentoring award from TEMPO—the largest professional women’s group in Wisconsin— and has been involved with mentoring on many levels over the course of her career.
Mentoring goes back to the Roots of Flourishing
It’s safe to say that mentorships go back to the beginning of time. Even before the time of Jesus Christ (the 12 disciples being a classic example of mentees), famous philosophers put their mark on the mentor/mentee relationship.
At the Kacmarcik Center for Human Performance, much of our work focuses on FLOURISHING—a broad and holistic concept that focuses on several dimensions that—together—empower people to live their best and fullest lives.
When it comes to the history of flourishing, you’ll find that this concept started in the time of Aristotle, who wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, exploring life, meaning, and purpose.
Aristotle argues that everything humans do is aimed at goodness, which causes a chain reaction. At the end of this chain is a higher good—something we want for the sake of itself, not to get somewhere else. And when you achieve this, you have found happiness and, in essence—have achieved flourishing.
Not incidentally, Aristotle was also part of a famous mentorship group—perhaps the most famous in history. His mentor was a fellow named Plato. And Plato’s mentor? None other than the infamous Socrates. For these early thinkers who focused on flourishing and the meaning of life, mentorship was integral.
How to get started
If you’re wondering which role to tackle first, mentor or mentee, King has some words of advice.
“Typically, someone becomes a mentor after years of experience in a role, career, or position,” King says. “Mentees are in their earlier stages of personal and professional growth and could benefit from a mentor’s insights.”
Are you overwhelmed by the idea of someone asking you to be their mentor? Don’t be!
“It is not difficult to mentor someone if the mentee is open-minded, receptive to feedback, and willing to act on advice,” King assures us. “It is helpful if the mentor and mentee have certain aspects in common such as a community, passions, careers, etc. These serve as reference points.
“A mentoring relationship does take time and commitment for both parties. However, the amounts of each can be agreed upon by the individuals. I’ve had mentoring relationships last one year … to 15 years. It doesn’t always have to be physical meetings either. A phone call or email could suffice for providing advice and guidance in a just-in-time manner.”
Looking for a Mentor?
“It is important to be a mentor, because it is important to care for others,” King continues. “Mentors can be instruments of change and the critical element of success for someone in need.”
So how do you get started?
A recent article by NPR advises people looking for mentors to:
1. Know your Goals (short and long-term): Be aware of what you what to accomplish, professionally.
2. Ask yourself who you look up to: What job would you like to have in 10-15 years? Who do you look up to? “The right mentor is often someone you admire and respect,” King adds. “Consider someone close to you or your existing network. Or someone completely outside your sphere may be desired if you wish to gain new and outsider perspectives.”
3. Do the research: Do you look up to someone? Notice what path that person took to get where they are today!
4. Be cognizant of your existing network: The more a person is aware of your work and talents, the more effectively they can mentor you. Also, make sure your intended mentor has the expertise you’re looking for.
The Relationship that Keeps Giving
While it might initially seem like the mentee receives the majority of the benefits, this should not be the case in a good mentorship.
King believes that while the mentee benefits from sage advice from someone they trust and respect, a quality mentor/mentee relationship is reciprocal—with both parties benefiting from the arrangement.
“A mentor benefits from receiving a sense of satisfaction in knowing she can contribute to the success of others,” explains King. “As a role model, the mentor can continue to develop her own leadership skills in listening, relationship building, communication, building trust, and serving as a resource. This role helps develop the ability to motivate and encourage others, a transferable skill necessary to become a better manager, employee, and team member.
“Being a mentor gives you the opportunity to see different perspectives as well. The mentee may contribute points of view and experiences that the mentor may not have encountered. This opens doors of learning new ways of doing things, viewing situations from different perspectives, and gaining valuable insights for the mentor.”
As expected, the mentee also reaps many benefits.
“With the advice and guidance of a mentor, mentees can avoid making mistakes that would otherwise occur. Feedback from a mentor can help a mentee grow stronger, more confident, and feel better equipped to handle challenging situations or crossroads in decision-making. This, in turn, develops leadership skills and character.
“The mentor/mentee relationship can be exciting to both individuals. This relationship is often the source of a highly valued and deep friendship.”
King describes this experience as creating a ripple effect.
“By helping a mentee, others are impacted by the mentee’s actions based upon the mentor’s feedback,” she says. “There is no knowing how far the impact of a mentor could go.”
So, why don’t more people do this?
Mentorship takes time and commitment. “When there are so many things competing for our time these days, it may be challenging to consider adding this to someone’s calendar,” King says. “They also may not want to feel responsible for someone else’s actions based upon their advice.”
However, it’s well worth the time and effort it takes to nurture a good mentor/mentee relationship.
“I never knew the true value of having a mentor until I had one myself,” King concludes. “My mentor (I had and still have several for varying reasons) helped me shape my thinking, expand my network, and gave me confidence, encouragement, and support to pursue my passions. I would not be where I am today without the advice and support from various mentors.”