Will You be my Mentor?
Will you be my mentor?
Will you be my mentor? This is a question asked of me more often these days, but one that is not always easy to answer. At least not in a way that makes many of those posing it to me happy, at first.
Many of the professional green industry talks I currently give focus on both business and personal career development. I also speak on issues related to women in the workforce. I work not to tell people what is right for them or exactly what they should do, but rather impart positive and successful experiences I've had using specific tactics. Developing successful strategy and tactics requires years of self-observation and honest self-evaluation. It requires you to become intimately acquainted with your authentic identity and inner voice. Not something that is always comfortable, but certainly necessary. It also requires you saying "no" a lot more than you were probably raised to do.
"No" is the answer I usually offer when asked if I will be someone's mentor.
First, I had had to adjust to being asked the question. It surprised me and made me uncomfortable because it just didn't occur to me, I was in the position to be considered mentor-level material. But, if I put myself in my 23-year old shoes, I get it. To my 23-year old self, my 47-year old self looks pretty damn accomplished! It's also completely understandable that when you feel inspired by someone to better realize your personal potential, you want to have a relationship with that person. So, I do offer a sincere Thank You to every woman who has asked mentorship of me. To be asked is both an honor and great compliment.
Second, I must resist my natural knee-jerk desire to help anywhere and anyhow I can. OF COURSE, I want to help everyone who is brave enough to put their ego aside and ask someone like me directly for help. Help with something as significant as building their professional development and career opportunities. Especially other women in my field. However, if I'm going to practice what I preach to other women, I can't give away the voluminous amounts of time required to truly mentor everyone who asks, without sacrificing my own income, business, and self-development. It's a predictable an over-promise under-deliver scenario. One that may end in my feeling used and over-extended.
Third, and most important, I want to put purpose behind my "No", so that it - at least - is one meaningful "freebie" mentoring lesson I could offer to those of you who have and will ask. The biggest reason I say NO to you (even bigger than the fact that I truly don't have the free time to help everyone who asks) is that...
YOU DON'T NEED ME.
You don't really NEED a mentor. I never had a true mentor. I had to rely on my own instincts and inner voice to figure out what best to do and where to go with my career. Are there things I wished I'd known better about or sooner? Sure. Of course. But that's going to be true for you even if you find a mentor. Mentors are not responsible for you or your decisions. They are not responsible for getting you jobs. They are not responsible for telling you what you should or shouldn't do. You are. Expecting to rely on a mentor as a career safety net will hurt you more than it helps. Your identity and your choices must be your own. The earlier in your career you learn to develop and trust and confidence in your own inner voice and instincts, the better. It's harder, but it's more fruitful.
Not to say you won't benefit (or I wouldn't have benefited) from someone with experience investing focused time to impart valuable insight, critique - and challenge you to expand your opportunities. You can and hopefully will. And at this stage of my career, there are certainly people I've worked with along the way who could have been mentors to me (they either weren't interested or available to do so, or my independent spirit inhibited those dynamics). That doesn't mean that I don't identify some of these people as an inspiration or some sort of role model - I do. Which, I find, is equally valuable. But that won't really happen with me for you, as a distant stranger. As someone outside your working sphere, it's going to be hard for me to help you in an authentically useful manner, day-to-day.
A truly meaningful mentorship, I think, must come about organically, and it needs to be with someone who knows you in the context of your student or working life. Someone already working within your circles who takes a particular interest in helping you develop your skills. Someone who has connections within your work world that can help you level up your game. Your mentor needs to be someone who can easily access you, and vice versa, so that the mentorship process is not a time or mental burden on any involved.
What I do offer those who ask me for mentorship, along with my "No", is that I AM happy to be part of your professional network of connections. Once we've exchanged an email chain, you can certainly ask me about particular referrals - or I might think of you to send you a job listing. If you're going to be in my area, you can swing by my office for coffee. Or, I may reach out to you and let you know I'll be in your area. And, we're more likely to connect in person at industry events.
My hope is that by offering my time to speak at industry events on such topics, that I'm best helping the most people where and how I can. To make sure I'm spending my professional time wisely, and best help people in a structured professional manner, I do offer paid coaching services; both for individual industry members who would benefit from career coaching and industry companies who are developing services and products. By formalizing the coaching process, I can be truly effective for those not already working close to me in some way. Sometimes you don't need a full-on mentor, you need a professional consultant.
Sadly, I usually never hear back again from someone once I've refused their mentor request. I know that it must feel discouraging to get a "No" from someone you were so hoping to get a "Yes" from. Please don't take it to heart as a personal rejection. Toughen up, say "Thanks, I understand!" and keep me in your professional contacts. Because what I do want you to take to heart from my "NO" is that you be the best you ALL ON YOUR OWN.