feeding my own misguided insanity

Mentors: The Priceless Few and Lessons Learned

I’ve always found mentors to be truly remarkable people who not only make light work of venturing outside societal and technical norms but who go out on a limb to help those who ask.  Their advice has often helped me to successfully navigate corporate politics, avoid technical minefields and, on occasion, convinced me to restructure my thinking, expectations and attitudes.

Mentors

I’ve been lucky, incredibly lucky, to surround myself with amazingly talented and inspirational people during critical and formative periods of my life. Be they colleagues who endeavored to push the status quo, friends who opened my eyes to new ways of experiencing life or mentors who taught me to see the world in unique and unorthodox ways — without them I would not be who and where I am today.

… with enough hard work, study, sacrifice, perseverance and at times unlearning, anything is possible.

They changed me in many positive ways.  What I cherish the most, however, is that they managed to instill within me a thirst for the unknown and helped me cultivate the self-confidence to approach any problem knowing that with enough hard work, study, sacrifice, perseverance and at times unlearning, anything is possible.

Some of my early mentors have now passed away: Billy [1], Stuart, Gordon and Kris.  In the brief time we had, they manged to convey their beliefs, dreams, aspirations, life philosophy and, most importantly, the understanding that only I can make a place for myself in the world.  S, T, G, D and H — those still kicking and breathing — I hope our relationships continues to shape my mind for many years to come.

Mentorships

My mentorships haven’t been one sided, and in the past I’ve taken on both roles: mentor and mentee.  For the most part, the experiences have been rewarding.

Being a mentee requires a certain level of surrender, placing one’s fate and immediate future into the hands of someone else – at times a complete stranger.  Trust is a crucial element of the relationship without which the union is likely to fail before it even begins.

I would suggest that you try to avoid entering into a relationship where you doubt the mentor’s motives or priorities.  Equally though, don’t be too hasty to exit if you find yourself out of depth or out of your comfort zone.  That uncomfortable feeling is part of the experience and worth its weight in gold in helping you grow and improve your confidence.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

— Ray Bradbury [2]

On the other hand, being a mentor can be a difficult proposition when you’re not secure in your own skin.  The role requires confidence: confidence in your own field of expertise and confidence in your own ability to guide your mentee.  I’ve often found that the relationship acted as a catalyst which helped me to crystallize previously unpolished ideas.  In that respect, it’s a win-win for both parties.

Both roles have challenged, and in many instances forced me to become more honest about my own beliefs and ambitions.  Irrespective of what others may be saying, staying true to my own convictions has been the only way to remain content in an ever-changing world.  At times this has meant changing direction and rubbing people up the wrong way — that’s the price of learning, I guess.

Overall, however, the experiences have given me the confidence to put forward my own thoughts for everyone to see, and the strength to stand by my ideas even when challenged by fiercely differing viewpoints.

Structured vs Ad Hoc Mentorships

Whether to follow a structured curriculum or an ad hoc approach has never been an issue for me. The few who have mentored me never pursued any formal or prescribed syllabus. In my eyes, the mere mention of a syllabus is enough to suggest that something might be best learned during private study and may ultimately be of minimal value.  My view is that mentorships are supposed to teach the unteachable, or at least introduce topics which are difficult to learn in isolation or during self-study.

Mentorships are supposed to teach the unteachable, or at least introduce topics which are difficult to learn in isolation or during self-study.

I find that structured mentorships are frequently plagued by a superficial expectation whereupon some achievement or deliverable is generated; that by the end of such a process a replica employee might be created.  The cookie cutter approach – mentoring by tick box.

Sadly, these types of mentorships tend to flourish within organizations where there is already a lack of on-the-job-training or career development opportunities. It’s a quick and dirty way to silence critics without actually delivering real value to the mentees.

Organizations that are only interested in keeping up appearances, without actually engaging in professional development, tend to also hide behind key performance indicators (KPI).  KPIs are frequently used as yet another means to demonstrate quantitative activity without any actual retrospective and ongoing qualitative analysis as to the curriculum’s effectiveness.

Having said this, I have been in situations where structured mentorships were helpful not in teaching me new things, but in exposing me to people who I may not otherwise have had access to.  Typically, though, these KPI-style mentorships are brief in scope and duration — mostly because there exists little tangible reason to continue them after the basic KPIs have been met.

In ad hoc mentorships, the mentor and mentee relationship is one of mutual stimulation and inspiration. There is rarely any mention of KPIs, although there may be frequent discussions about achievements.  A well-matched relationship creates an environment where free exchange of ideas flourishes and is self-sustaining.

Conclusion

Firstly, there is no prescriptive guidance I can give other than suggest that you find a mentor.  The vast majority of successful mentorships usually take root by osmosis, but that’s not to say structured mentorships don’t deliver results.  They do.  However, I’ve found them not to be as rewarding as those that I’ve “fallen” into.  Either way, don’t be afraid to jump head first into uncharted territory.

Secondly, don’t get stuck in mentorships where KPIs are the main reason for the relationship taking root — so called: mentoring by check box.  So be careful, because it may turn out to be a big waste of time.  If it isn’t working for you don’t feel guilty about pulling the plug on the whole thing.

And lastly, don’t forget that mentorships are supposed to be a two-way street.  As a mentee you need to be proactively driving the relationship rather than relying on the mentor to push you forward.  The mentor is your backup, the fallback plan, in case something doesn’t go to plan.  So try taking the driver’s seat, you may surprise yourself with the end results.

[Image credit: Tina Mailhot-Roberge]

Footnotes
  1. Fleet Street salutes him with a tribute by the Guardian.  William Arthur Reynolds, journalist, born 8 May 1942; died 30 August 2015.  His love for Australia earned him a nickname on the Express, Didge, as one of his colleagues, Alastair Mcintyre, recalled in a Daily Drone tribute that also referred to the ever-smiling Bill’s sense of humour. ^
  2. At first I thought that this quote was by Kurt Vonnegut, but it turns out that erroneously a number of people have been credited over the years.  The latest research points to Ray Bradbury as being the original author.  http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/06/17/cliff-wings/ ^

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