OP-ED: Look for a mentor you can work with, not just listen to

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal makes the case for purposeful pursuit of the ideal mentor by the needy "mentee." It implies that if you think logically and rigorously, and pursue the ideal target with diligence, you will find, attract, and secure the mentor you need.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal makes the case for purposeful pursuit of the ideal mentor by the needy "mentee." It implies that if you think logically and rigorously, and pursue the ideal target with diligence, you will find, attract, and secure the mentor you need.

In my experience, however, it can be both time-consuming and disappointing. It is not only difficult to characterize the ideal mentor, it is even more difficult to find her, much less seduce her - and even more problematic to retain a lasting relationship of value. As a result, I view the mentor-mentee match-up to be much more like fishing for mountain trout, i.e., you cast your line and hook what you can, and keep the best of what you catch. The good news is that mentor-mentee match-up opportunities come along often. The trick is not to search for mentors, but rather to recognize them when they appear on your radar, and then capitalize on them. Most mentor stories we hear about imply a relatively long relationship - years rather than months. Yet the short-term match-up is at least as good a target as the more widely heralded lasting relationship. Years ago I worked with a senior partner in my firm who was anything but the ideal role model. Yet he was a superb mentor for me periodically over two years - once I decided what to learn and what not to learn from him. He was masterful at gaining client confidences and positioning issues in terms that executives would respond to. I value his "mentorship" in those areas to this day - but it was never formalized, nor given easily. Those who bemoan the absence of the "ideal mentor" are well advised to look around for the less-than-ideal mentoring opportunity - and seize it with both hands. It can occur when you least expect it, and it can last for as little as a few weeks. Most people take pride in being able to transfer knowledge to others. If you want to motivate a prospective mentor to spend time with you, try appealing to his sense of pride. He is likely to be proud of what he does well, and your interest in learning it can intensify those feelings. Pride is a more powerful motivator than money, so you shouldn't think of yourself as a drain on someone else's time. Nevertheless, your enemy, of course, is time. Your prospective mentor will likely be over-committed, and will seldom place a high priority on helping you learn - unless you offer something in return. The most valuable thing you can offer is usually your time to help the mentor accomplish something vital to him. The good news is that learning passes most effectively between mentor and mentee when they work on something together, rather than when they simply chat across the dinner table. Working together allows a mentor the powerful teaching option of demonstration and example. Finding a way to work with your mentor becomes the ideal way to learn from him or her. Ken Makovsky, founder of Makovsky & Company, told me that his mentor taught him something critical about the very nature of work. "As a young man, I thought the best thing I could do was to work hard and fast - which by its nature often meant working alone," he said. "My mentor exposed me to the power of collaboration and he taught me that work and smart work aren't always synonymous. By reviewing my work in my presence, by using me as a sounding board in brainstorming - even by just letting me witness his superior creative talents and experience at work - he was encouraging my growth in ways that would have been impossible sitting alone in an office at 9pm. I got an invaluable lesson in sustaining a creative learning culture in an intense, deadline- driven business like PR." Finally, don't be disappointed if your mentor relationship is a short one, particularly if it is based upon real work together. If you learned what you needed to, and your mentor goes away, you are still ahead of the game. Perhaps there will be another work opportunity with that mentor, perhaps not. Keep your eyes peeled for the next one that swims along, and start the work-with ploy all over again.
  • Jon Katzenbach is the author of four books, including The Wisdom of Teams and Why Pride Matters More Than Money. He is a founder of Katzenbach Partners LLC, a management consulting firm.

    Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Register
    Already registered?
    Sign in

    Would you like to post a comment?

    Please Sign in or register.