When we hear of mentoring relationships, quite often the image that comes to mind is one of a wise friend who stands slightly behind us at critical points, whispering encouragement, advice and direction to help us navigate the pathways the challenges of work and life. As appealing and comforting an image as that presents, it isn’t really what we should seek in a mentor. In fact, the real gift of mentorship is not the security of an all-knowing protector, but rather the uncertainty and excitement of life’s journey, with the confidence that your mentor shares a passion for your experience. While that description doesn’t fit the conventional view of mentorship, it does explain the basis for an effective mentoring relationship, which is, by far, the most important thing to consider.
The primary driver in an effective mentoring relationship is the mentor’s motivation to act (or not act), in order for the mentee to learn important lessons and grow positively. This contrasts starkly to a common, yet flawed, view of mentorship as an intervention to ensure continued success. Instead of being a tightly controlled talent management script, mentoring should ebb and flow to best facilitate personal learning and development. With that as a basis for the relationship, there are a few qualities to consider when identifying a mentor with the right gifts.
A mentor challenges. Mentors don’t remove or diminish the challenges of life. In fact, quite often they allow us to struggle in order for us to learn to deal with and solve the problems we face. The gift we receive from our mentor is resilience and a persevering mind that builds our character when others look for someone to bail them out or offer a shortcut.
A mentor critiques. Just when we think we’ve learned the lessons from life’s challenges, a mentor offers us insights that cut to our very soul. The words and wisdom of a mentor are those we would readily not choose to hear, because they cause us to see ourselves as a work in progress, instead of an accomplishment. The gift we receive is a humble personality and openness to other perspectives, instead of kid gloves and useless platitudes.
A mentor corrects. Despite our best efforts to listen and learn, there are times when we need the strong hand of another to alter our path. Instead of whispering directions in our ear, a mentor grabs us from behind or steps in our path to reveal the seriousness of our actions. The gift we receive is grace and compassion from a mentor who is willing to sacrifice the relationship to prevent us from going astray.
Challenge, criticism, and correction – not the attributes we normally seek from a friendship, but in a mentor, they represent some of our greatest experiential needs. And if there is one thing a wise and friendly mentor truly knows, it is our desperate need for experience.