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Mentorship: Expectation vs. Reality

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Brittany Tilstra
Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
January 20, 2020

What do you think of when you hear the word “mentor”? Do you think of an older, wiser person available for advice? Or someone with years of experience coaching you throughout your career? If you answered yes, you’re thinking of a traditional mentor relationship. In fact, that's what most people think of when they think about mentorship. But wait! That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mentoring.

Most people expect a traditional mentor relationship. 

Traditional mentoring goes a little something like this: A junior-level individual meets one-on-one with a senior-level individual regularly. It's a relatively hierarchal and unidirectional relationship. It's also a rare find and time-consuming to cultivate, but, if you find the right fit, you can benefit personally and professionally for your entire career.

Other types of “mentoring”

I used “mentoring” in quotations here on purpose. Most people associate it strictly with traditional mentoring as we described it above, but that’s just not the reality of how we learn from other people. There are so many different ways to be mentored and it’s important to consider all of your options. 

  1. The Hero: Think of someone who is a heavyweight in your field. Someone whose career you follow and see as The Gold Standard—think Michelle Obama or Elon Musk. These people may not be easily accessible for a coffee chat, but there is a lot to learn from them from afar. Although sending an email to say “hey” never hurt!
  2. The Advocate: This is someone who understands what you do and is going to connect you to others. This person is in your corner and is great at chatting you up to people in your field. 
  3. The Sidekick: This person is there to chat through projects and discuss difficult situations. This kind of relationship is great because you should feel safe to fail in front of them because they are a trusted equal.
  4. The Rock: This isn’t necessarily someone in your industry; think of them more as a moral compass. Maybe it’s a family member or an old boss, but you jive with this person on a higher level and can turn to them when you need to clear your head of the day-to-day and be reminded of your values. 
  5. The Student-Teacher: You will learn more by teaching, we guarantee it. Explaining what you know and answering a lot of questions to an eager protege is great practice for you as a leader and an amazing way to give back to your community.
  6. The Anti-Mentor: This kind of mentor will teach you what *not* to do. Maybe it’s a poor attitude or someone who missed the mark on a big project, but by observing the negative impacts of these actions, you can take them as lessons so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Does anyone come to mind as a mentor now?

The reality: 

Technological changes in the workplace have evened out the playing field between generations and specializations. More often, you’ll see that “self-starter” and “strong interpersonal skills” are required on a job application over a specific number of years of experience, so it’s important to think beyond degrees and certificates. Soft skills will last you longer than any technical knowledge, and empower you to be resourceful when you need to update old ways of working.

The traditional mentor model alone may not be as effective as it used to be as a result of rapid changes to a wide variety of industries. We need to be adaptable and so do the types of mentors we look to for guidance. An industry disruption could mean that the student becomes the teacher, and the teacher becomes the student. And while that may be a scary thought to some, stay calm! We live in a highly connected world and can access relevant connections instantly just by clicking “send”.

You can build a diverse network and learn from anyone that you take the time to chat with. Why limit yourself to one mentor when you can have a whole community of mentors and supporters? You will learn something from every single person you meet, all you have to do is be curious. 

Do you have a mentorship story you want to share? We want to hear it!

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