The world is a tough place, and we make it easier when we have the support of others. Mentors can make a big difference at any stage of life. But what is a mentor? I hear from people of all ages that they want a mentor, but they keep asking the question “what is a mentor?”. There is not a single correct answer, thus you have to make mentorship work in your own life.
A mentor is a trusted and experienced advisor. The concept is really popular right now with the millennial generation. As these young professionals are getting older, many are ready to take their lives and careers to higher levels. However, there is no single road map to success and life can be hard and confusing.
For many of us our parents and teachers did not prepare us for the realities that we face when it comes to jobs, relationships, money, community, entrepreneurship, raising kids, being a friend, etc… The specific behaviors we all have may have come about from proper guidance, but for many people life is a series of trial and errors.
*Since originally writing this blog post, several people have sent me links to articles about how Millennials Need Mentors. This one in Forbes was a powerful read.
*What is a mentor. Here is another article in Forbes that was sent to me in May 2019. “Mentorship in Business and Life”
Know What You Seek
Before anyone can go to the next level, they must identify what their own success looks like. Seeking “more” in the world is not enough. A person must be focused and clear on their personal and professional goals before they can start down the path.
The world of personal and professional development is overrun with gurus and coaches who are willing to charge people for their version of a life road-map, but these people often have their own agendas. The relationship is transactional. These are not bad (I have hired coaches, attended courses from “gurus”, and read all the books written by experts), however I had the best breakthroughs when I had the guidance of mentors.
Mentors Are More Than Coaches
What is a mentor? My belief is that mentors are not based on an exchange of money. It is a give and take relationship where all involved in the mentor / mentee relationships are invested for the long run. I do not see a mentor as a coach, but instead a trusted advisor who is committed to being a friend in addition to a guide.
Most on the outside think the role of the mentor is to be the sage who teaches the younger professional, but a real lasting mentoring relationship is about the sharing of knowledge and experience between everyone involved.
Speaking About Mentorship
A central theme that I have shared as a motivational keynote speaker over the past decade has been that “shared experiences build relationships”. There are many networking speakers who try to show people the shortcuts to meaningful connections, however there are no shortcuts.
Likes, Links, shares and follows are wonderful, but they are not actual social proof of what makes a business or personal contact.
Networking and building long-term and mutually beneficial relationships is difficult. This is why many people fail at building the type of business relationships that lead to more opportunities.
It is doubly hard to establish effective mentor / mentee relationships.
When I speak to audiences at conferences, especially groups of young professionals, the meeting participants line up and ask me more about “what is a mentor?” and “how to find a mentor?”. Good mentors are not for sale on Amazon.com.
The ambitious millennials who I meet are starting to see many of their peers excel in careers. Many tell me they credit their most successful friend’s success to that person having a mentor. They want one. In other words, the people who want to do more in their careers are hungry to find role models who are willing to share knowledge and expertise.
My Experience With Mentors
Early in my career I was fortunate to have many people show up in my life and serve as mentors. But I did not understand nor appreciate the value. I had never asked the question “what is a mentor?”, therefore I did not recognize most of them until the relationship had played out.
Having a mentor who comes into your life for a certain amount of time is still great. But I see many others who found real guides (either outside their company or industry, or from the various levels of the organization where they worked). These long-term guides become more than a mentor.
I wish I had had that kind of consistency in the mentoring I received. In retrospect, I could have if I had identified the power in the mentor / mentee relationship and had made the ask of these role models.
My Experience With Mentees.
People are amazing. I like people. Thus I am always willing to talk to people who cross my path in life. As a successful professional keynote speaker for the past decade, many week my advice on how to enter that business. I enjoy talking, and have no problem with people who ask to “pick my brain”. The idea that maybe i share an idea that helps another person on their journey has become a currency unto itself.
(SIde note – over the years I have had different viewpoints about those who want to buy someone coffee to pick their brain. Much has been written by my peers about how much they hate the term “pick your brain”, and how it amounts to free consulting. But my take now is that if someone seeks your knowledge, you should be willing to give it to them, as mentoring can be a gift you give that changes the world.
That said, I do offer paid coaching, as I do not have the time or energy to mentor everyone in the world. Plus a true mentor / mentee relationship is built on cultivating a human connection and friendship. But an initial conversation is something I will always make available. I do make local people meet me at 7 AM at the Starbucks near my home, as I don’t want to drive 30 minutes to have my brain picked).
While I have been willing to share thoughts with many people, I have only had two people to whom I think I have served fully in the role of mentor.
Mentor – Not Their Dad
These two young men both crossed my path at about the same time. They were newly out of college, and both had moved to Austin, Texas to begin their lives. I first met them in very different situations (one saw me speak at a business event, the other I met randomly in a coffee shop). Over the past six years a real friendship has grown, and they call me “more than a mentor”. My own kids refer to the mentees as my “Fake Sons”.
Over time they have become friends with each other, and I think that has solidified our connection. People ask us often how we built the mentoring connection, and we are not sure that it can be repeated. I believe their being close friends caused them to ask each other “Have you talked to Thom lately”, which spurred them to reach out.
The one thing to keep in mind is if you are trying to establish a relationship with a mentor, you have to drive the early stages of getting together and establishing a pattern for communication. In the beginning I could not have called and said “Hi, can I mentor you today?” (that would have been creepy). But as they got comfortable calling to ask for advice, the connection grew into the friendship we have now.
Many of their friends have seen the benefits of having a mentor, and have inquired about how they could find someone willing to give them constructive feedback on an ongoing basis. It is not easy.
Many companies and associations have asked me to help them write a system for the “terms of mentoring”, but it is something you can systematize.
Sharing The Whole Story
As I look at the unique friendship I have with the mentees, it is based on the fact that we spent time together, talk openly, and have a policy of full honesty.
I mentioned above that relationships are built through shared experiences. Mentoring cannot be effective by text. We need to sit down and have a meal (or drink) and talk. I have promised that I will answer any question they ask of me. My life has had been filled with good decisions and bad decisions. But as a mentor I am not doing them any service if I sugar coat my story. This is how I think society lets down future generations.
On the flip side, I expect them to share their truth. While there are things all of us may not openly share with our real parents, I am not really their dad. My age puts in me in a place of “Fake Dad”, but we are friends. To give them advice that is meaningful I have to know about their hopes, dreams, disappointments, actions, etc… If I do not understand who they are (the good and the not as good), then I cannot be a great mentor.
Over the years I have met with both mentees (separately and with both at the same time) to talk about their career and life goals. But we also have taken to having some fun as friends. They have invited me to concerts and parties. I often think their friends look at me like “who brought their dad?”. While some of their friends treat me like a peer, many are not sure what to do with me and act like a dad is in the room.
Last year I went camping with my youngest daughter, and after the trip the mentees joking asked “when is the father /son camping trip?”. I laughed, but they were only half kidding.
Last weekend we spent two nights camping along Lake Travis outside of Austin. We brought food and beers, and sat around the fire talking about any number of topics. In some ways it was like a trip with family and friends, in other ways it was definitely a mentor / mentee retreat, as we talked a lot about what they will accomplish this year and what they need to meet their goals. If I ever wondered “What is a mentor”, I found the answer in my relationship with these two men.
What Is A Mentor?
A mentor is a guide. A mentor is a trusted advisor. But most of all a mentor is someone who cares and finds the currency of the relationship in helping another person navigate the journey of life. What is a mentor? A mentor is a friend.
But here is the secret. I learn as much from these two gentlemen as they claim they learn from me. We live in a society that is working hard to divide people by their age and generations. The truth is we are all better people when we have friends who have different perspectives.
Finding a mentor is not easy. You many have to seek out many. You may never find one specific mentor who is always in your life. But try to make connections. People are amazing, and for each one who doesn’t care you will find ten who want to help others. A mentor matters and can change your future.
**What is a mentor? If you are a mentor, check out this blog post: “4 tips to be good mentor”
Hosting a conference for young professionals? Thom has created a new workshop called “What Is A Mentor?” that is ideal to get everyone in your organization excited to be a mentee or mentor.