“Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become your foresight”.
Not sure who said that, but I wish I had read it years ago. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I made the switch from “Wow, you are young to be in this role” to “Wow, I wish I could be you when I grow up” but it seemed to happen somewhere around my 38th birthday. Some of that had to do with the role I was in, and the way the company worked (we had a fairly well-formed mentorship program that encouraged that kind of engagement) but I think it was a shift in me as well – I could see other people going through some of the same challenges I had, and I wanted to help them out.
Casual mentorship is certainly something anyone can participate in, and basically it means finding someone who has done some thing you want to learn about, and asking them to help guide you through the same process. There aren’t any real rules to this kind of relationship, except that usually the mentor is older than the mentee, and usually the person looking for guidance is the instigator.
For me, though, I have come to take the notion of having a more formal mentoring relationship rather seriously. While the casual mentorship arrangement is great, I think having a formal agreement with someone who is tasked with guiding you through a particular set of goals or milestones might help take the place of a teaching strategy we have moved away from as a society. For thousands of years we taught youngsters deliberately from the perspective of our experience, whether it be “here’s how to shoot a deer” or “don’t eat THAT one!”, but with the mechanization of our workplace that kind of hands on teaching has become rare. Training we do, teaching we do not.
Few companies have formal arrangements that encourage senior people to spend this kind of specific teaching time with junior folks who are coming up the ladder – in fact, some may see this as a career limiting maneuver, training your own replacement. To be clear, I am not talking about telling someone how to do something; I am talking about deliberately sharing your experience with someone junior to you. I would argue though that we have been learning this way since we were hunting and gathering, and the encoding for that kind of behavior still exists; the inclination is still there, and we should be using it.
To build truly strong teams that collaborate well, we need to work together up, down and sideways; mentorship is one mechanism that can get us there, and helps foster understanding between reporting lines and peers. Formalizing that relationship is one way of ensuring we are not only passing along institutional knowledge, we are also enabling the kind of 360 communication that builds powerful consensus both within departments and across companies. Beyond the benefits to the company, the impact on a junior employee can be profound. I will never forget my first mentor, and her prophetic words to me: “The best way to get people to understand the path you are on is to share it with them”. Works for me