During my career I’ve attended my share of professional meetings where a speaker attempts to impart some wisdom or life lesson while trying to sound humble. After the first couple hundred or so of these speeches, I find myself drifting to what the server will bring out next — stuffed mushrooms or baby quiche.
In fairness, there is sometimes the moment when out of left field comes the hidden nugget that yanks my focus from food back to the topic of conversation. Recently I attend an alumni function where the speaker really got me thinking – the value and importance of a finding a professional mentor.
I’m not sure of a clear-cut job description, but I think it’s important to establish the difference between what a mentor is and what a role model is. There are similarities yet vast differences.
A role model can be either someone you may or may not know and perhaps admired from afar. Friend, relative, public or historic figure, they have traits that we like and deem worthy of emulating. Professors can be strong role models. Mother Theresa was a great role model.
Mentors, however, are different. Like a role model, a mentor is someone we admire and wish to emulate. But a mentor has personally agreed to help us reach our professional goals. To help teach us those important things that our hefty college tuition didn’t cover.
It’s amazing how academically focused and motivated today’s college students are. I volunteer with several college fraternity groups and we spend time discussing the importance of developing life skills while still in college. Learned skills that can transfer into the business world and mentoring is a topic I’m beginning to incorporate.
As an undergrad it never occurred to me how much I could have strategically influenced the course of my career by having a mentor. Sure I had several internships which helped me on the technical side, but it wasn’t that extra something a mentor could have offered during that important stage of my life.
In my city there were plenty of family friends, fraternity brothers, and other acquaintances who were prominent businessmen. Busy with their own careers, they certainly weren’t going to reach out to me to see if I wanted some guidance. They would have taken me under their wing if only I had had the foresight to research and engage those who were already successful in my intended field. Fortunately I didn’t miss the boat on being mentored. It just took longer to luck into the opportunities.
Mentor on aisle four?
So where do you find a mentor? To my knowledge, no one has built a job board for mentors, but there’s a couple of ways to locate a career guide – be aggressive, do your research and make it happen or just let it happen to you.
In my case, it wasn’t until five years post-graduation that I discovered my first mentor. Before moving to New York City, I never realized how green I was until I first showed up at Grey Advertising. “Never make plans you can’t break” and “this is business — don’t expect to make friends” were among the many things I learned that first week. Sounds harsher than it really was and I went on to earn her respect, trust and friendship. Sadly we eventually lost touch but there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for her part in establishing my professional “style” and teaching me to always try to be poised, calm and in control, give great attention to detail and always be willing to be assessable.
10 years later I encountered my second mentor and like the first, I was working for a different advertising agency in Atlanta and she was my supervisor. A completely different dynamic than the first, the relationship tested my ability to think on my feet, to succeed in completely foreign waters, and that you can actually have fun at work. While we no longer work together or live in the same city, like my previous mentor we went on to become great friends and I continue to value her opinions to this day.
Now I’m transitioning to mentor number three and who knows, hopefully more will follow. What’s important for me to remember is to be willing to put yourself out there and never be too old to learn. While I no longer need help in the fundamentals of business acumen I’m excited to be challenged and exposed to new opportunities and ways of doing business.
The business world is constantly evolving and can be cold and harsh. That’s why I believe it is important to pay it forward whenever I can because I know how important it is to have someone in your corner that is removed from the immediate politics and day-to-day ordeals. Someone who can look at situations objectively, point out missed opportunities, be candid, and when necessary, give a deserved, yet friendly kick in the rear. In other words….a mentor.
I wonder if Hallmark has a card for that.