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The Whiteboard: Mentorship shouldn’t be optional

Do you have a mentor? If not, are you a mentor for others? If you answered no to both of those questions, I think you should give consideration to either getting a mentor or being one.

If you’re struggling with my questions, perhaps you don’t understand what a mentor is and does. I’ve asked several groups over the years if anyone knew the origin of the word mentor. It’s surprising, though perhaps shouldn’t be, that most people have no idea.

Mentor is a character in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” required reading when I was a young man, though unfortunately not today.  While Odysseus, king of Ithaca, is away fighting in the Trojan War, the goddess Athena watches over his young son Telemachus. She appears to him with advice and guidance, disguised as Mentor, an old friend of Odysseus.

A mentor has come to be defined as a trusted guide or advisor, and one who provides this guidance without any thought of compensation. In the modern definition, a mentor is someone you can talk to confidentially about career choices or life choices. It falls into the category of servant leadership.

A good mentor has traveled the road that the mentee is now travelling and knows what lies beyond each fork in the road.  A good mentor doesn’t judge the mentee and keeps everything discussed in confidence.  Not all advice is taken, and a good mentor isn’t an “I told you so.”

At work, you might not be comfortable discussing your career choices, difficult work-related problems, or your own perceived weaknesses with your boss or your peers. A mentor can be someone who works for your employer, but who is outside your chain of command. Or it could be an outside individual who understands your profession or business.

When making life choices outside of work, it can be helpful to have someone to talk to who isn’t a family member or close friend.  A good mentor can help you feel free to be completely open and confident that your musings aren’t going to be shared with anyone else.

In my own career experience I’ve had a couple of good mentors, but I know now that I didn’t do enough to seek out mentors to advise me at several key points in my career. Everything worked out, but it would have been so much easier if I had sought someone to help guide me. To work with a mentor, you have to start by admitting to yourself that you need help.

At all stages of your career and personal life, I strongly recommend that you seek out mentors. People at the top of many professions have advisors, coaches and guides. That’s one reason they are at the top of their professions. Why shouldn’t you, especially if you can find a good mentor who wants nothing more than to be helpful.

Once you’ve gained experience, I hope you’ll consider becoming a mentor. I have mentored a number of people in business. I help run a mentoring program for engineering students at Penn State and I mentor mid-career professionals through a leadership program here in York. There are plenty of opportunities to mentor others.

It’s easy to sit back and complain about the younger people coming behind us, but why not be a resource that helps them develop more fully and quickly? What could be more rewarding than helping another person grow and develop?

Think about mentoring. Get a good mentor or be a good mentor.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at [email protected].

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