This is my 200th post, started this about 10 months ago with this Introduction.
I haven’t written on this subject, but it’s one I feel passionately about. As a young professional of 24 years of age, I was lucky enough to meet my mentor. It was a happenchance really. After moving back home to the midwest from Jersey, I was thrust into a division of my new company that I didn’t really know that well. I floundered at first in the new structure and disciplines, but eventually found my way and learned many new things. Along this journey I became interested in a certain subset of my industry, one that eventually led me to Mark who, while part of the division, wasn’t my supervisor of any sort. Mark is about 16 years older than me but is completely full of life and acts like a man half his age. He’s constantly on the go, has to have various pet projects in his personal life and had child on purpose at age 43 (wife 42) because A) he always wanted a third and B) his kids were getting too old (I think the youngest was 10 at the time). His vigor and energy is what drew me to him in the first place.
Why he took me under his wing, I’m not exactly sure. I wasn’t really strong in said discipline but like Mark, am a type A personality. We had similar interests, and by the point we really started to grow our relationship I had chucked my bad habits of smoking and being a fat shit, and started biking and running and even swimming. On the work front, Mark got me involved on a high profile project that ended up winning national awards in our industry and I really learned a lot under his wing. I got invited to national conferences, to national award dinners, wrote technical papers, presented at trade shows and conferences and was integrated into the network Mark had established. While the relationship was mostly professional, we talked about life, about our families and despite our age difference had a lot in common. The year before I left the company, he completed a lifelong dream of becoming an Ironman (triathlon: 2.4 mile swim/112 mile bike/26.2 mile run) which was inspiring to me.
My project work wasn’t all Mark’s, so I worked with other managers and they ended up pushing me in a direction I wasn’t happy with. During this time, I too followed my mentor’s direction and signed up and trained for an Ironman. Just prior to leaving the company, I finished the race in a fine time, finishing in the top 5% of all competitors and just missing a Kona (World Championship qualifying spot) for my age group (which I did qualify for the following year – but passed on going). I left on good terms with the company and went on to expand my horizons at another firm.
I had a great experience at this new firm and my new boss became another pseudo-mentor to me, but one that was both older and had less in common personally, so we weren’t as close. When the stodgy environment of this other firm finally wore me out after six years, and after a couple of years of hounding by Mark – who by this time had jumped ship to a new firm as well – I finally found myself working with my former mentor once again. And let me say, it’s been the best professional decision I’ve made. Instead of being a cog in the wheel, Mark was brought in at this new company to be “the man” in this region. He’s kicked ass in his role and since I’ve been here (about two years only) we’ve about doubled in size. As he’s rocketed up the company ladder, he’s left a void in his wake. One that I’ve been effectively filling through skills that were more or less directly learned from him over a period of seven years working together. While I’m really more or less doing this already, I’ve been told that by the end of the year if not sooner, I’ll be in effect, a regional manager for our company. I’m not one for titles or showmanship and really just want to play my part on the team. It’s looking like I’m here to take the load off the boss, but as I’ve filled his void the rest of our staff look to me to lead them since I’m a stable force in Mark’s absence.
I believe just due to my personality and the success I’ve had at nearly every endeavor in my life that my career trajectory was always going to be high. However, meeting a mentor that had similar family values, personality and work skills was sort of lucky. I’ve been introduced to a large number of opportunities, learned a great number of skills and have felt more integrated into a larger purpose by working with my mentor over all these years than I ever would have thought. Our relationship is becoming more peers but that power differential will always exist based on our life experience. No matter what, I consider Mark a very large influence in my life direction, and not just in my professional journey. It’s the day-to-day feeling of being a part of something bigger, of belonging, of motivation that makes working for him so special.
FINDING A MENTOR
Finding a mentor isn’t always easy. I know I lucked out, but actively pursuing someone who you admire and respect is another way to find someone who may take you under their wing. Like a relationship, you need to be someone that your mentor can respect. You also need to naturally have a little of what your mentor has within them, or said another way, your mentor must see a little of himself in you. I don’t think it’s a good idea for your supervisor to be your mentor since sometimes you need to speak freely about the organization, but it can happen. Also, I think searching for someone 10-20 years older than you is ideal since they’re at a totally different life level but are close enough in age to be able to identify with what you are trying to achieve. Ideally, you’d get some one-on-one time with your mentor and pick his brain on things.
If you feel comfortable, ask him or her outright if they would be willing to mentor you. They don’t have to be within your organization, but typically that works best. They could also be part of a larger trade or professional organization in which is supported by your company. If not, or want a more informal relationship, thank them for their insight and hope you can continue the relationship. Most people want to help younger staff succeed and to impart their wisdom (they find it ego-fulfilling and flattering), but you have to be willing to fight for their time and attention without being annoying. Don’t overburden them for time or attention, shadow as much as possible and simply soak in who they are (if they are an excellent individual). Be sure to show appreciation for the time they are working with you since you are gaining much more than they are out of the relationship.
I strongly believe that having a mentor in your work life is a critical aspect for improving and accelerating your professional learning process as well as integrating into a larger work society.