Are You My Mentor?

by Heidi Doxey

There have been a number of fantastic posts here on AMW about mentors and mentees, both in a formal and informal sense. I should definitely re-read those posts. I’ve always imagined a mentor as a fearless, high-powered business professional, or perhaps an octogenarian with soft wrinkled hands and decades of wisdom. Or maybe a self-made entrepreneur who refused to let life keep her down. Maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong.

A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a friend and over the course of our conversation I realized—with a bit of shock—that she considered me a mentor. To be honest, I panicked and without attracting too much attention to it I immediately shifted the conversation to less nerve-wracking (for me) waters. Later that evening I spent some time trying to figure out what about me comes across as “mentor material” and, more importantly, how do I navigate this new layer of our friendship without totally messing it up?

Must this new part of our relationship have formal mentor-mentee characteristics and behaviors? No, I don’t think so. I think informal mentor relationships can also generate value for both the mentor and mentee, and at least for me, that seems like a less-scary place to start, somehow more manageable and fewer chances for me to somehow do or say the wrong thing.

Do I focus all conversations on the areas in which she wants or needs mentoring? No. We are friends, this should not become a strictly businessy, professional relationship; I do need to ask about progress and set-backs and offer advice and encouragement when appropriate.

Do I schedule regular recurring meetings to share ideas and information? Maybe not quite that formal, at least not right now. Should we keep talking about her improvements and next steps? Yes.

Do I stop sharing my own frustrations and failures? No, but I may need to slightly reframe how I phrase those conversations so she (and I) can learn more about working through frustrations and learning from my failures.

Do I keep an eye out for seminars, professional development, workshops and encourage her to attend? Do I send informative articles her way? Yes, I should. I try and do that anyway—sending links to friends of things I think they’d be interested in learning more about, videos that will make them laugh (or cry), and pictures of pets dressed up like humans. So yes, I will continue to send those things, perhaps more intentionally and with some kind of follow-up.

Do I need to re-asses how I think of mentors? Yes, I definitely do. And when I allow the informal to be labeled as a mentoring relationship, I find it much easier to identify.

My sister is my mentor when it comes to making quilts or pie. She has true artistic genius; she’ll give a pile of colorful scraps the side-eye and the next day it is cut and pieced into a beautiful field of prismatic design. Or she can take a vague idea and a triple handful of fresh fruit or custard and whip up a prize-winning dessert in no time flat. If I ever have questions about quilts or pies I always call her first. And the one time I thought I’d attempt a pieced quilt “on my own” she went to the fabric store with me, arranged my purchases, and very patiently walked me through all the cuts and steps, praising my amateur efforts and generously helping me with the tricky parts.

In the same vein, my friend Cristall is my mentor in my new (and still very elementary) hobby of oil painting. She offers advice and encouragement, kindly suggests improvements, has gifted me books and supplies, and invites me to art galleries and artist’s seminars. I kind of feel like a kindergartener showing my latest stick-figure masterpiece every time I send her a picture of what I’m working on, but her kind praise and constructive criticism has improved my paintings in ways I would never have been able to accomplish on my own.

So, while I don’t feel like I have enough experience or the kind of resume to be considered a mentor—in actuality I do have some valuable experience and advice that could benefit someone who is starting out on the path I began 10 years ago. I have a few triumphs and heaven-knows how many failures. If my experiences and perspective can help my friend find her own way to success I will be the first in line to share them and encourage her in this dream. It has and will continue to take some conscious effort to redefine myself into the framework of a mentor, but we all have to start somewhere and what better to start than among friends?

Do you have a formal or informal mentor? Or are you one yourself?

2 Comments on “Are You My Mentor?

  1. I have struggled with both sides of this. Going back to finish my undergraduate degree with my eye on then going on to a graduate degree, I often feel like I am in this weird limbo. I often am in classes with seniors and graduate students, and my experience working gives me insights that are sometimes at odds with academic expectations.

    I had the same discomfort when I was a project manager for an insurance company. Everyone I supervised and collaborated with had at least a bachelor’s degree. It never came up, mostly because I was competent and only HR and my hiring manager were aware of my educational status. I had one employee who was unhappy with her current job, and I suggested that she use the company education benefits to get a graduate degree that would help her move into a different department. She still emails me, 6 years later, for advice. When she saw my status update about returning to school she would as shocked that it wasn’t to get a PhD. It hasn’t changed our relationship much in the long run, but it took her some time to process, and I still am not sure whether it is a compliment that she told me that I “easily passed as someone with a graduate degree already.”

  2. I have spent the past eight years of my career running formal mentoring programs. While there are benefits to formal mentoring, I think some of the best mentoring happens informally and organically. Whether or not we realize it, we probably all have experience and advice (from our successes and our failures) that we can share with others who are not as far down the path as we are. I think you captured so many of the great elements of mentoring in this post! Your friend is fortunate to have you.

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