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Don’t have a mentor? You may be making these simple (and fixable) mistakes

If you have read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, or honestly, seen any of the press coverage, then you know that Sheryl places serious importance on mentors. Mentors and sponsors, she believes, are key to your advancing in the modern workforce. And she would know! Sandberg has had a long string of mentors, many of them quite famous.

But what do you do if you didn’t go to Harvard and Larry Summers didn’t take you under his wing? How do you find a mentor?

And to make things MORE difficult, Sheryl is very clear that you can’t just approach anyone you admire and ask them: “Are you my mentor?”

In my experience, the problem is usually that people have a very specific set of ideas about what a mentor looks like and how that mentorship relationship should play out.

In this way, Sheryl and I are in agreement: like dating, you can’t just pick a person and make it to work. Or you CAN, but it’s not usually the best course of action.

If you find yourself in the position of not having any mentors, and not seeing anyone in your life as a potential mentor, I challenge you to reconsider what you think a mentor looks like. I would bet that you have more than one perfectly eligible mentor already waiting to be called on, if only you would ask.

Top three myths about mentors that you must extinguish immediately!

1. Mentors have to be older than you
This is by far the most common misconception. Your mentor has to have salt and pepper hair, and have a E-V-P or C-E-O in front of their title. Right?

Wrong! Mentors come from all walks of life….inspiration is not ageist! I’ve had mentors with more and less education than me, more and less years of experience than me and their age has never mattered. The important thing is that they have guided me and helped shaped my career and progress.

I look for mentors across 2 categories: 1. those who have technical skills I admire and want to learn from and 2. those who have leadership skills and management approaches I want to study.

Now, pay special attention, if you work in digital media or tech, it is ESPECIALLY important that you vanquish this myth. To exclude mentors younger than you will be to deny yourself the skills that you’ll need to progress in your careers, because I hate to break it you, but some of those young kids really know what they are doing.

Even Sheryl admits to being frequently mentored by younger employees.

2. Mentors have to be in your industry
Much like cross-training, a good mentor from an industry outside of yours will expose you to new ways of thinking and solving problems. For example, the agile processes used by software developers has had a hugely positive impact on management practices in all kinds of other industries, in particular, manufacturing. Imagine if no manufacturer ever stepped over the line to learn what those techies are doing!

Professional development in different industries prioritizes different skill sets for it’s staff – being aware of the skills in demand around you can help you focus on building a plan for yourself that takes into account what’s happening in another industry, maybe one you might want to enter.

More importantly, different industries can have similarities, and you can benefit from learning how your mentor has solved a problem that you may now have. Take journalism and education – both have been undergoing massive disruptions in their traditional business models. My mentors from the media world have no idea how I’m reusing a lot of their advice in education these days, but I am!

3. Mentors do all the teaching
One common thing I’ve found about a great mentor, is that they aspire not only to share their expertise with you, but they want to learn something new from you as well. The most influential career mentors I’ve had have felt that I had something important to say, and they wanted to help me develop my voice so they could hear it.

Mentorship isn’t a top-down relationship. The best experiences come from relationships where both people are sharing and learning together. Again, the rules of any healthy relationship apply to mentors as well: no one wants to be the only one giving! Make sure you take the time to nurture the relationship and create a valuable experience for your mentor as well.

In fact, one great way to find a mentor is to identify someone you want to learn from and figure out how you can help them.

Deepina Kapila

Dee is a fun-loving instructor with diverse tech experience. She's worked in a variety of roles from front-end development to video production to prototyping. Dee is originally from Curaçao, a small island in the Caribbean but currently lives in Austin, Texas where she also works as a Technology Project Manager at the University of Texas.

In her spare time she enjoys playing video games & scuba diving. She is also working on getting her pilot’s license.

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  • April

    Well, I did go to Harvard, and I did have mentors, but they were pretty useless when it came to helping me envision what kind of career I could have outside academe. And now, on the threshold of my umpteenth career change, I’m not sure who I admire or what I need from a mentor. But I like your post. It’s getting me thinking.

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