Mentoring Truths that Nobody Talks About

Mentoring woman leaning her face on her hand and listening to her coworker

I have searched for a mentor for quite some time. At first, I thought I had a solid mentor in a Marine sergeant, but that experience was fleeting and shallow; this mentor had already started to mentally check out of his job since he was soon transitioning to civilian life.

During my next career move, I had found a great mentor in a high-energy and creative investment manager, and she was one hell of a teacher — whether she knew it or not. I was not able to take full advantage of her knowledge since the three-month internship had come to an end, and I resumed my studies at university. Later, I thought I had discovered the dream mentor in the head of diversity recruiting at the top tech firm in the world. This mentorship ended abruptly when I left the company.

I searched for a mentor for so long that I had indeed become one myself. This desire to scope out the potential in people and help to bring out the best in them has become an inseparable part of my life, as I make my best attempt to mentor and cultivate the next generation’s Great People. During my 10-year run as a mentor, I have discovered some truths that I had to learn to accept to get the most of my relationships with people as a mentor and as a mentee. For whatever reason, nobody ever wants to discuss these truths, which makes finding, keeping, and getting the most out of a mentor so difficult.

People Don’t Show You All they Know Until they Are Ready to be Replaced.

This is why it is so difficult to find a capable mentor in a supervisor or a manager. People want to be indispensable at work. They have a need to stay a step ahead of the young talent who are fresh from formal education and more current with the technology and methods. And thus the mentor becomes a rival, hiding key tricks of the trade or taking direct action to slow down the ascent of an energetic young apprentice.

Image of Darth Sidious mentoring Anakin Skywalker on the nature of the dark side
 Credit: Disney

And sometimes for good reason – misdirected ambition can cause big problems for the mentee, later down the line. Just think, if Obi-Wan had been a stronger mentor, the Senator Palpatine would not have started young Anakin on the way to the dark side!

So how do you find someone willing to reveal all? Find people who are close to retirement or have no interest in remaining active in their long illustrious careers. Many of these people are excited at the opportunity to speak about their worst and finest moments and receive your desire to learn from them as a memorial to their life’s work. These are truly the best of the earlier generations!

Not All Mentors are Down for the Long Haul, and That’s Okay.

hiking with buddy

In college, I learned that within the system of academia, you will be assigned mentors based on what you choose to get involved in: clubs, fraternities & sororities, research programs, sports or internships. You find this in any system — someone should be there to show you the ropes or you muddle around on your own, wasting everyone’s time. It is up to you to decide how much wisdom and experience you can gain from the mentors before the relationship comes to an end. You may never talk to your mentor again, but you can choose how you will apply what you take with you when it’s all over. Not all of us can find a Benjamin Graham.

If you are fortunate enough to find a mentor who is willing to help you develop yourself over the course of a long-term mentor relationship, you may find that at some point, you will outgrow the mentor relationship, and you just become friends. The mentor relationship may even evolve to become a benefactor, or angel investor relationship, based on the context.

Mentoring is a Transaction.

Benjamin Graham
By Harishsama1998 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I mentioned Benjamin Graham, who was a mentor to Warren Buffett, perhaps the most consistently successful investor of all time. However, if Buffett had not been determined on becoming a student of Graham, would he have been given the opportunity of working under Graham? Would he have been given the opportunity to take risks and apply Graham’s teachings under supervision? That is the transaction of mentoring. The mentors get something, whether it is your skilled labor, access to a younger network, a successor, or the satisfaction of knowing they are making a difference in the world. The mentor gets tough life lessons, a pathway for advancement, and perhaps friendship and pay.

warren buffett
Credit: Mark Seliger for TIME

A good mentor will challenge you and put you in uncomfortable situations with a high degree of risk. Avoid people who will drain you of talent without allowing you be challenged. Those are not true mentors; they are just bad bosses. Understanding that mentorship is a transaction allows more pragmatic, independent, or introverted people to consider seeking a mentor, putting pride aside for their own benefit.

Mentoring is Made of Moments — as Opportunities to Listen.

Most of what I learned or recalled from the people who took me under their wings, was a single quote, a shared experience, a story, or a good conversation. It was almost never the technical training that served me the most. It was the act of sitting there and listening that made me a better decision-maker. By listening, I learned ways of thinking, speaking, and approaching problems, that I would not have stumbled across by trial and error.

By paying attention to the people who came before me, I learned how to move in different circles and navigate the business landscape as if I had been there for decades. You must take the time to listen to your mentors and internalize the best advice and habits; if they get the idea that their words start to fall on deaf ears, they may abandon the relationship.

I leave you with what I consider to be required reading on Mentorship, from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson as well as a quote about the philanthropic billionaire from the famous performance coach, Brendon Burchard:

I’ve seen that phenomenally successful people believe they can learn something from everybody. I call them ‘mavericks with mentors.’ Richard Branson, for instance, is a total maverick but he surrounds himself with incredibly successful, smart people and he listens to them.

Cody Bess