The original mentor is a character in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. When Odysseus, King of Ithaca, went to fight in the Trojan War, he entrusted the care of his kingdom to Mentor. Mentor served as the teacher and overseer of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus.
Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines mentor as a trusted counselor or guide—a tutor or coach. Katherine Lewis, in Working Moms Advice from About.com, defines a mentor as “someone who is helping you with your career, specific work projects, or general life advice out of the goodness of his or her heart.” I’d go a step further. Today, mentors might be paid to share their knowledge with inexperienced colleagues. If they are, they’re called coaches. Mentor or coach, both are invaluable for someone who needs guidance and advice.
I strongly believe in mentoring. I had one when I first began teaching and again when I began editing. Today, I look for and use a mentor when I have questions, guidance, need a sounding board, or need help with a new idea or area of focus.
As a way of paying it forward, I’ve mentored students, other editors, and those who are thinking about entering the publishing field. I’ve learned a lot from my mentors and want to take a few minutes to share what I’ve learned with you.
Why do you need a mentor?
If you’re trying something for the first time, or you’re in a new job or career, and you’re not sure of your skills, you might consider looking for a mentor. Students often use friends as mentors, and writers might approach other writers. Everyone asks for advice when they need help, but they may not call it mentoring. In your area it may be called coaching or even tutoring, but tutoring is more often associated with education and polishing or perfecting academic skills. Coaching, on the other hand, is paid mentoring that covers your career and personal goals.
Who makes a good mentor?
When you’ve decided that you want to work with someone, a mentor, you might wonder how to find one. Look around. Who do you turn to when you have questions? Is there someone in one of your professional groups? Is there a colleague you often turn to for advice? Is one of your friends good in the area you need help in? You can also ask your friends or colleagues for suggestions. Mentors are all around you. All you have to do is keep your eyes and hears open.
What characteristic should you look for in a mentor?
A mentor should be someone you can relate to and really be yourself with. They need to have great listening skills. They need to help you make a list of goals. They need to lead by example.
The perfect mentor will offer suggestions but will be open to listening to your suggestions too. They will be your cheerleader when you succeed, and they’ll provide a nonjudgmental ear when you fail.
A mentor will hold you to task. They’ll ask the right questions and they’ll help you think through what’s right for you.
The perfect mentor will:
- Have experience in your chosen field.
- Have a good balance of similarities compared to your strengths and weaknesses.
- Be a willing participant.
What questions should I ask my potential mentor?
Once you have a list of possible mentors, you don’t need to interview them. That might turn them off. If you have found someone, or a few someones, in your chosen field who you think can help guide you, all you need to do is let them know you’d like them to be your mentor and watch how they react. You might walk up to your potential mentor or mentors, one at a time, and say, “Your career has been very successful, and I think I could learn a great deal from your experience. Would you mind if I turn to you as a mentor and resource for answers to career-related questions or for problem-solving advice?”
From their responses, you’ll know if they’re a fit. If they aren’t, or if they aren’t interested, say thank you and move on.
How long does the mentoring process take?
No one but you knows how long you’ll need a mentor. I sought advice from my editing mentor for two years. Even now I contact her when I have a question I can’t work through on my own. When I was doing research for this post, I discovered that most sources say that individuals have mentoring relationships for a year. For some, like me, the relationship can last longer. Both the mentor and mentee should talk about what they want to accomplish and decide how long it will take to reach those goals.
The mentor and mentee should also talk about ending the relationship. Draw up a list of guidelines and goals and decide when the relationship should come to an end. Openly monitor your progress with your mentor and evaluate your goals. When you or your mentor believe you have reached your goals, or your mentor decides that they can’t help you any more, sit down and discuss your successes. Take a minute to appreciate each other. Thank your mentor for what they have done and ask him or her if you can contact them again when you need their help.
What if mentoring doesn’t work for you?
It is always best to end the mentoring relationship on good terms. If you, or your mentor, see that the relationship isn’t working, accept that. Contact your mentor. Discuss your concerns and quietly explain why you are terminating the relationship. Take time to allow your mentor to weigh in.
If your mentor believes that the relationship isn’t working, listen to him or her. Let them explain the problem. Talk about a solution. If you or your mentor aren’t a good fit, thank them for their time and move on. It’s better to realize that the process isn’t working for you, or your mentor, than continuing.
How and how often should you and your mentor connect?
You and your mentor should agree on how to connect at the beginning of the process. Are you going to do a face-to-face? Via e-mail or Skype? Are you going to talk on the phone? Look at all of these possibilities and think about what will work best for both of you.
I’ve read posts where others think that the best type of mentoring happens face-to-face. The same people believe that the best mentoring happens when the two individuals live in the same place. While that is probably best for a lot of people, only one of my mentors has lived in the city that I live in.
I have had great success connecting with my mentor via e-mail. It doesn’t bother me that she doesn’t live in the same city. This works better for me because I have to think about and make the time to contact her. When I do, I have to focus all of my attention on my mentor and make sure that I ask the questions I want answered. This forces me to pay attention to what my mentor has to say.
The amount of time you spend connecting with your mentor is also as individual as you are. Talk about and decide how many hours a month you need to accomplish your goals. Most believe that you should connect with your mentor at least once a month for four to six hours. You can do this face-to-face if you live in the same city and if you work in the same office. Otherwise, you can connect through Skype or e-mail. If you Skype, you probably won’t Skype for more than an hour at a time. If you connect via e-mail, you’ll be hard pressed to meet the time requirements, unless you count the time it takes to read, respond, and send e-mails.
Some believe that touching base every two weeks is okay. Talking or meeting once a week won’t work because it doesn’t give you enough time to accomplish your goals. It’s up to you and your mentor to decide what works best for the two of you.
How do you repay your mentor?
When the year is up and you and your mentor are going your separate ways, how do you repay them for all the help they’ve given you? The best thing you can do is model what you’ve learned. Show your mentor and the world that the year was worthwhile. The second thing you can do is pay it forward, i.e., do something good for someone in response to the good deed done on your behalf or the gift you received. Mentor someone else. Share what you’ve learned. That will be the best way to repay your mentor for all they’ve given you.