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MentorCloud's Blog Carnival: Mentoring Edition [vol. 1]

Mentors matter. You matter. 

At MentorCloud, our vision is to ‘build a mentoring planet,’ where hundreds of millions of people around the world can connect to share expertise and to accelerate one another’s professional, academic and personal goals.

We are kicking off 2014 with a Blog Carnival on our favorite topic: mentoring. A Blog Carnival is a means to collate the wisdom of the blogosphere on a particular topic, adding to it our team’s perspectives and reflections. Think of this as an ‘insightful summary’ of thought-provoking articles from authors who are as passionate as we are about that particular topic.

MentorCloud’s Inaugural Blog Carnival on “Mentoring”

Recent years have made mentoring a mainstream strategy for career advancement and entrepreneurial success. The simple notion of asking for another’s guidance, support, and wisdom is experiencing a revival in this new age of global connectedness and social media. From students to working professionals to entrepreneurs to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, the power of having good mentors is transformative. Equally powerful is to be a mentor for someone else. As our CEO puts it, “We grow by helping other people grow.”

Mentorship Defined

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But who is a mentor, exactly? The reality is that anyone can be a mentor, as long as he or she is willing to share their practical knowledge or skill set with another person they care about. A good mentor does three things: cares, shares, and inspires. You might already be a mentor to someone, and you most likely have a mentor or mentors who you rely on for professional and personal advice.

Emerging Professionals contributor Heather Ludwig makes it simple in her article, “Mentoring - the Yoda Way”: quoting politician John C. Crosby, “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” But she notes that recent trends in technology and globalization have resulted in “today’s emerging professionals [not] getting the mentoring they need to have a successful career.” Noted Forbes contributor, angel investor, and Babson College Professor Peter Cohan reiterated the exact same issue for entrepreneurs in his seminal article “Silicon Valley’s Mentoring Gap.”

Responsible Mentorship

The issue is not the lack of good mentors. The issue is that many potential mentors do not envision themselves in that role. As Alfred Edmond Jr. of Black Enterprise comments in his insightful article “Mentorship is Earned, Not Owed,” several mentees might selfishly view the mentorship process as an opportunity to exploit resources and connections, without giving back or paying it forward.

Professionals who have benefited from good guidance in their own careers should then take the time to pay it forward by becoming mentors themselves. Jay Baer, social media guru aptly sums it up this way in his message for 2014 – “Remember the virtuous circle. The more people you help, the more people you’ll have helping you.”

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There are plenty of opportunities for mentees to accelerate this cycle. By respecting your potential mentor’s time and energy, you establish yourself as a conscientious, worthwhile mentee. In Crosby Noricks’ article, “How to Lean In to a Mentorship That Works,” she outlines five ways to approach a mentor: appeal to their interests, engage them on their turf, ask pointed questions, compliment them, and - when applicable - establish clear timelines and expectations.

"The Gift That Keeps On Giving"

By identifying oneself as a valuable asset to a mentor, a mentee also increases his or her potential to serve as a mentor for someone else, distilling and contributing to the knowledge passed down from the prior relationship. As Julie Winkle Giulioni notes in “Why Mentorship is the Gift That Keeps on Giving,” there’s a positive feedback loop for mentors as well. Mentoring can provide tremendous growth opportunities for mentors, who can hone critical leadership skills, improve their own work and performance, and stand out as an exemplary role model within one’s organization and network. Rather than emphasizing the search for helpful guides, Giulioni highlights the allure and importance of presenting oneself as an ideal mentor.

Inevitably, strong mentors embody traits and skills that are desirable for a much wider variety of potential mentees than they might have time to coach. As On Mentoring author Alan Saporta notes, sometimes "silent mentors" - or "someone in your life you select to learn from without ... having a formal mentoring relationship with them" - have as powerful an impact on a mentee's development. Through positive or negative reinforcement, mentees can mimic or condemn behavior, therefore creating a subtle but significant shaping mechanism that can tremendously benefit an individual.

How To Build a Better Mentor

Regardless of how valuable a mentor might be, their skills could always be improved. The Stanford Social Innovation Review posted “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Leaders,” a must-read for mentors seeking to enrich and fortify their relationships with their proteges. Jennifer Przybylo and Nina Vasan provide a thorough checklist of actions a mentor must consider, including “humanize yourself,” “foster community,” and “make regular appearances.” These informal qualities are more valuable, and feasible, with the introduction of social media. As angel investor Aaron Pitman comments, finding and keeping up with a mentor has become extremely simple with the inclusion of social media, so relationships have more potential for growth.  

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Like with any relationship, though, be sure to seriously consider your mental and emotional state before engaging in a mentorship. In her article, “Revisiting Some Basics: For Mentors,” Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones compiled some preliminary considerations for anyone interested in mentoring. She advises professionals to evaluate themselves, their workloads, their motivations, and their potential benefit to a mentee before agreeing to bring someone under their wing.

Of course, mentors aren’t perfect, and mentees shouldn’t aspire to walk directly in their leaders’ footsteps. In fact, the failures of a mentor can be just as enlightening as outlining their successes. Regi Campbell, an experienced CEO and entrepreneur, astutely described the “Six Reasons Mentors Tell ‘Failure’ Stories.” Campbell breaks down how failures can make a mentor seem human. “If you’re a mentor, open up. Loosen up. True strength is revealed in vulnerability, so tell your mentees where you’ve screwed up. Let them learn from your mistakes.”

Different Mentors for Different Needs

The effects of good mentorship can last a long time. Jon Titus, formerly with Design News, dedicated the final blog post of his career to “The Importance of Mentors.” He described how various mentors through his life, beginning in high school, influenced his career path and offered “guidance without issuing ‘orders’ to do something… and helpful advice and suggestions based on their experiences. [They] had a solid moral and ethical foundation on which they based their actions.” Importantly, Titus comments on the deep personal relationships he built with his mentors.

Noted workplace psychologist and LinkedIn influencer Marla Gottschalk stresses the importance of a carefully-selected Fab 5, "a group of key people to serve as a 'catalyst,' encouraging both exploration and excellence." By developing a broad foundation, professionals can access a strong knowledge base, derived from a varied group of mentors.

Formalized Mentorship

Though mentorship can be a fairly ambiguous concept, there are structured programs that offer mentorship on particular topics. The Leeds School of Business (University of Colorado, Boulder) runs a Professional Mentorship Program, which emphasizes academic achievement and career placement. In a post on the Leeds blog, Jillian Trubee describes how her mentor’s ongoing support has positively affected her major and career prospects.

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The UK’s NIH Research Clinical Academic Training scheme trains nurses, midwives, and allied health professionals with the guide of accomplished subject-matter experts. This quasi-academic situation hearkens the question: what’s the difference between a “mentor” and a “teacher”? As Professor Annie Topping quite thoroughly explains, a mentor can serve many roles at once, including but also exceeding that of a teacher.

Mentors v. Other Leadership Roles

Authors Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning further clarified the delineation between mentor, coach, and leader. Rather than expecting performance deliverables like a coach would, mentors work on improving their mentees personally. Georgia Feiste outlines in “Mentoring as Part of the Leadership Role” Bell and Goldsmith’s SAGE mnemonic. The acronym, which stands for “surrendering, accepting, gifting, and extending,” is key for any mentor to keep in mind. 

A very important distinction between a mentor and a supervisor is the mentor’s distance from the outcome of his or her mentee’s work. In “Mentorship,” Jennifer de Graaf notes that “My mentor understands the industry, knows me personally, and has exactly zero stake in the results of my decisions unlike those other resources.” This separation allows the mentor to provide the unbiased, “outsider” perspective on the topics about which mentees seek guidance. That being said, many mentorships evolve naturally and without any formal agreement.

"What Life is All About" 

All in all, mentoring is a dynamic, nuanced topic that manifests in hundreds of forms. What’s clear is that mentoring is a positive act, with both sides interested in improving themselves and others. For those interested in learning more about the art of mentoring, JumpStart’s Annie Zaleski provides further reading in “8 Must-Read Mentoring Articles.”  

Graduate Ma’ayan Plaut, writing on the Oberlin blog, sums it up:

“You know what I love about all of this? The cycle, the circle. I have mentors, my mentors have mentors, and I'm gonna be (I am?) one, too. We're here to help each other, whether it be someone to talk to or talk up. Learning from each other. It doesn't really stop when you say stop. In all these situations, it's about being open to the possibilities. … it's what life is all about.”

We couldn’t agree more. Mentorship is the best way to prepare aspiring professionals for their upcoming careers, students for their academic challenges, and entrepreneurs for the long road ahead. It’s the only way for practical wisdom to be transferred from one person to another or from one generation to the next. By being a mentor and seeking a mentor, we can “build a mentoring planet” together.

MentorCloud wishes you a very happy, prosperous and success-filled new year!