This post is not a treatise on mentorship. There has been a great deal of thoughtful research and commentary on the value of mentorship to support people as they progress through their personal and professional life. Instead, I wanted to share with you my personal thoughts and experience with the concept of mentorship. I hope if you read this that you will share your personal experiences with me and others regarding mentorship.
To sum up my experience with mentorship, I would simply tell you that I cannot point to a single individual that has helped guide me on my path of professional or personal development. I can identify individuals who have trained me, inspired me, offered me advice, and been role models. Each of these contain aspects of mentorship but my personal belief is that a mentor-mentee relationship typically incorporates all of these aspects in a one-on-one relationship. Sometimes the one being mentored has a small group of people to help guide them on their path (mentorship committee). More importantly, I believe a mentor provides critical feedback (tells you what you don’t want to hear) and also guides you in what not to do helping you to avoid taking on activities that would be counterproductive to your ultimate success. This blocking and tackling of obstacles represents the greatest value of mentorship.
Many reading this will ask what about my parents? As a son and now as a parent of three, I would argue that parenting goes above and beyond the responsibility of mentoring. When I think of a mentor, I think back to a handful of teachers that nurtured and developed my interests and were there to help me when I made a wrong turn (maybe I did have a mentor early on?). But as a parent, I believe my role is so much more. It is not to guide them in the right direction down a single path but to give them ample opportunity to choose the path that will fulfill them. It is not to run interference but to understand when you need to let your child try and fail and when you need to intervene. It is not to only help them achieve their goals, but to keep them safe, healthy, and provide them with a moral framework so they can achieve their dreams. My parents gave me all that and more and their role in my life cannot be compared to mentorship.
But getting back to my point about mentorship, this is not a story about a failure of people or the system around me to provide me mentorship. This is also not a story of “if only”. I overall am satisfied with my life and career. While I am not in the place I would have anticipated almost 14 years ago when I finished my fellowship, I have a robust clinical practice and have had the opportunity to take on leadership, operational, and administrative roles where I have learned, been able to make a meaningful impact, and enjoy doing. More importantly I have a wonderful family that brings meaning and joy to my life every day.
Most discussions on mentorship focus on the mentor and how to do it well but I want to focus on the mentee (I am using this but not sure this is a real word so forgive me if it is not). Specifically, I want to focus on my experience as a mentee. To do this, I want to share two stories. From about the age of 5 until 11 years old, I grew up in central Florida and our family’s primary activity was playing tennis. I remember hanging out at the public tennis court with my brother and parents for what seemed like many hours on the weekend. My dad, who is a mechanical engineer approached the game as you might expect a technically minded person to approach any physical and technical challenge. He read books, took lessons, and watched all the tournaments televised at the time (pre-Tennis Channel or on demand video) identifying aspects of McEnroe, Conner, or Bjorg’s strokes, serve, etc… that he could incorporate into his game. His expectation was that my brother and I would do the same. My brother being the first child rose to the challenge accepting my Dad’s and his coaches mentorship. He was ranked for a time and achieved success on his High School tennis teams.
I on the other hand, had lackluster success. I did play on my High School tennis team for a short time but for anyone who has experienced this, I was always number eight on the team and at risk from challenge from the lower ranked players on the team. At the time, I attributed my lack of success as being left-handed in a right-handed world and the failure of coaches to translate their teaching to my right-sided brain. In addition, I acknowledged that I was not physically the most gifted athlete. I’m relatively short and not terribly coordinated. Both of these factors contributed to my lack of stardom but the real reason, in retrospect, rested in my own behavior and personality. As a kid, I hated criticism (I was my own worse critic and found it difficult to take critique from others) and had a hard time taking advice. While I put up a passive-aggressive front with my coaches, I simply defied any advice from my father.
Fortunately, this did not affect my success in other areas. When it came to school or theatre/debate (which I transitioned to with my fizzling tennis career), I simply spent hours trying to figure it out on my own. It wasn’t until my early 20s when I saw that my inability to accept criticism and advice was impacting my personal relationships and goals that I consciously made a change. Like many things in my life, I had to figure this out on my own. I taught myself not to react when being criticized or corrected. I would write down advice or critique that others gave me and review it later in private and determine which information to act upon and what I would choose to file for later. And ultimately I made the transition to seeking advice and guidance. I would reach out and ask critical questions to people who had expertise to try and improve.
It’s not perfect. As you can tell, this acceptance of criticism and advice is on my terms. I am not an open book but rather a password protected site open to only those I choose to let in. But it’s better and I believe that having insight into this aspect of my character, is a big leap forward. Which brings me to my second story. About 6 years ago, I took on an operational role. I don’t want to go into details to protect the names of the innocent but suffice it to say that I had a lot of energy and motivation, but a significant amount of inexperience. But again, I recognized my weakness and reached out to a handful of people to try and get advice and guidance. One individual that I reached out to was a very senior person in the organization who was also one of the most challenging people to deal with in the leadership space I now occupied. In addition, I was offered my role over his protégé which made me even more suspect to him.
I set up a meeting and went to his office with a list of questions. After we had exchanged the typical niceties, I pulled out my list of questions and asked him if I could ask him questions and would he be willing to serve as a mentor. At the time, his answered shocked me but in retrospect it should not have. He stopped me and asked that if he took the time to give me advice and act as a mentor, would I follow his recommendations. I answered honestly, no, I would not always follow his advice. He told me that if I did not follow his advice, then he would not mentor me and asked me to leave which I did.
At first this seems appalling but looking back, I can see his point. My point as a new leader was to try and win him over. While I certainly would have been appreciative of his advice, I would have used it selectively as I have taught myself to do over the years. As such, he did not view me as a worthwhile investment of his time and effort. While another person might have taken this as an opportunity to influence a young leader, he preferred to remain separate knowing that he could leverage his political capital in case of conflict (which I can assure you he did).
Which brings me to my take away. The failure of mentorship in my case was not necessarily on the part of the potential mentors in my life. It was a failure on my part to accept mentorship. A more nuanced view is that I wanted to be in control of the mentorship relationship and like any relationship, it takes two to tango and requires flexibility on both parties to make it work. My early challenges with criticism led me to a solution that allowed me to learn from others, accept advice, and admit when I am wrong, but not without sorting it out on my own first. It has certainly not been the most efficient way to get from point A to B in my career but it has allowed me to learn from my mistakes and process advice from various stakeholders into a cohesive plan. It has also given me the confidence to act but not react.
For those out there early in their careers and lives, my advice is that in order to have a successful mentoring relationship, you have to be open to accepting the advice and guidance of your mentor. Which is why I included the second story. Like any good relationship, mentorship is a give and take. The person being mentored needs to be open to guidance, criticism, and re-direction while the mentor must be willing to give of their time for the benefit of the relationship and not for their own self interest. A mentor is not a boss. Following orders does not lead the mentee to independence which is the ultimate goal. A mentor is also not a parent. That level of obligation to another individual I believe is reserved to loved ones, close friends, and family. Instead, like a good teacher, a mentor supports and guides without manipulation or direct gain. It sounds a lot like finding a soul mate but I would not go that far. However, it is a commitment that requires openness and investment by both parties.
No matter what stage we are in, we can all use mentors and can find fulfillment in mentoring others. That is why I don’t believe my “mentor ship” has sailed and I encourage everyone to seek out others to help them on their life journey.