What the @#$% is a Mentor and Why Do I Need One?

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When Odysseus (King of Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey) goes to fight in the Trojan War, he leaves the care of his household and instruction of his son Telemachus in the hands of the wise-old man, Mentor. Over the years in the English language, we have given this name to a person who imparts wisdom and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague. This is the what, keep reading for the why.

If you are serious about working on your goals in a more intimate capacity, a one-on-one mentor/mentee relationship may be right for you. Working one-on-one allows communication to be clear and individualized. Below I have written some tips, hits, and pitfalls based on my own relationship with mentors. It has been a positive influence in my life, and I hope you give it a chance.

Benefits of Mentorship

A mentor is a database of specialized knowledge. They are encouraging and offer guidance. Beyond this, there are many reasons to have a mentor.

Here are just a few:

  • To further develop your skills in a specific area with the help of a field-specific guru
  • To get a glimpse of the world you are working to become part of
  • The mentorship experience gives you a chance to talk about yourself, your goals, and your future
  • A mentor may also be able to offer advice so you don’t make the same mistakes they made, but more importantly, when you do make a mistake, they will have the experience and knowledge to help you out of a crisis
  • A mentor will open doors for you in their network, but only when you are ready


How to Find a Mentor

You can’t choose your parents, but you can choose your mentor. The best mentors will be able to help you set goals, work through setbacks, and grow skills in a specific area. Keep in mind, a mentor/mentee relationship is not a one-way street, it has to be a good fit for both of you.

Here are some places to start:

  • Where you work. This may be someone in your office who is in a position you would like to have one day. Your company may have a mentorship program already in place. If so, I encourage you to look into the program and meet a few of the mentors one-on-one for lunch to see if one clicks.
  • Your extended network. This may be someone you respect or look up to in your friend-and-family network. Talk to this network about your goals. If someone in this network cannot provide you with the mentor relationship you need, a friend or family member may know someone in their own network they can introduce you to.
  • Conferences, meetups, and relevant events. Take a risk; don’t be afraid to start a conversation. Connect with people in person and later on social media. If you feel a connection with someone, ask them about mentoring and invite them out for coffee.
  • College or University. Ask a professor you have a strong connection with. If you are not currently one of their students, send them an email. I have had great conversations with professors well after I have been their student.

A mentorship is not a business transaction, it’s an open space to share knowledge and offer guidance to future leaders. Your environment should be somewhat relaxed and informal. My mentor in Michigan -- before moving to Washington -- would emphasize this point each time we met by saying with a smirk, “you get what you pay for”.


Hints and Pitfalls

A mentor/mentee relationship is unique, it is professional but on occasion subjects will come up that break the barrier into personal. They are not your best friend and they are not your business consultant. Where you draw the line is up to you and what you want to get out of your relationship.

These are some things I have run into in the past:

  • Your mentor is a sounding board for you to bounce ideas off of. They should give you advice and help you talk about your goals, setbacks, and work ethic, but they should never tell you what to do. The end decision should always be left up for the mentee. If the mentee makes a mistake, this is a good opportunity for a mentor to step in and help the mentee reflect on a recent decision.
  • Age difference is a benefit, not only for you but for your mentor as well. Gina Amaro Rudan calls millennial mentees “fat brains” in her book Practical Genius. She writes, “It is my opinion that every practical genius needs some percentage of their tribe to be at least half their age. I consider these young advisers, whom I call “fat brains,” to be the next wave of global mentors for business leaders, entrepreneurs, executives, and game changes. … A Millennial’s digital fluency, gamer’s problem-solving skills, and scrappy creative resourcefulness can change your DNA, making you nimble, adaptive, and more comprehensively exposed to the broadest spectrum of cultural influences. Over half of the global population is under the age of thirty. And unless you are under thirty yourself, I’ll bet you only a small fraction of your tribe, if any, come from this demographic.”
  •  Be mindful that your mentor isn’t reliving the glory days with you. If they are not helping you reach your goals, you may need to find someone who will.
  • (similar to above) Make sure you communicate your goals clearly to your mentor. If they are using you to work on their own personal interests and your goals get derailed, remind your mentor of your goals and have a conversation defining your relationship.
  • Be prepared to work. A mentor will not want to invest time in you if you don’t invest the time in yourself. This may mean reading books suggested to you, reading a few new blogs per week, or doing some deep introspection and writing about what motivates you.
  • Be open to a new approach. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it won’t work. Some things may sound silly at first -- think of Daniel in The Karate Kid waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car -- the real value is only recognized months (or years) later. Wax on, wax off.


Andrew J. Wilt
SEI Junior Consultant 
Apprenticeship Program