‘Get a mentor’. What that really means is: ‘go and find someone who’s already done what you are trying to do…and learn from them’. ‘Look up the ladder and you might see a mentor above you.’ This is the classical mentoring relationship – the seasoned leading the naïve.
Historically, mentoring was a special relationship that went much further. The gap between the qualified and the unacquainted, the sovereign and the callow, was impenetrable. It was literally the distance between a man and a god:
In Homer’s Odyssey, a man named Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War, leaving his infant son Telemachus behind. Twenty years later Telemachus pieces together his father’s life under the tutelage of the Greek goddess Athena and embarks on an odyssey to find him. The benevolent Athena accompanies him, mentors him and facilitates their reunion.
Mentored by Less Than Gods
The democratic mindset has since swept the planet (to the chagrin of the Greek gods I presume) and we no longer understand mentoring to be divine. Your closest mentor may be only the smallest step above you, but could they even be below you?
In 1999 the CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, initiated ‘Reverse Mentoring’. He ordered 500 top-level executives to connect with people below them to learn how to use the internet. It’s now a popular tool deployed in major companies like Time Warner and Procter & Gamble. Not only does it ‘narrow the gap’ between the adept and the unversed, it produces bidirectional mentoring outcomes where both parties mentor each other.
My Surprise Mentor
The revelation is that there is no exclusive direction to look for a mentor. You probably already have one. At lunch recently with a fellow business owner, I shared with her my dread of an awkward meeting I was considering. Her sage advice: ‘it may be an awkward conversation, but life’s awkward’. Her business is roughly ten times smaller than mine, her experience about 4 times less, but she was mentoring me and continues to do so.
Sponges Make Mentors
Oxford defines mentor as ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’, but advice is given whereas counsel is taken. A mentoring relationship is less about the wise spout of experience and more about how thirsty we are to learn.
‘Sponging’ off someone is a positive thing – it means to absorb what they are exuding. There are people that are mentoring me whom I have never met. They don’t know I exist, but I’m like a giant sponge, learning whatever I can from those few that I admire.
You don’t need to look for a Greek god, or for an almighty CEO to give you advice, you just have to look around for whose counsel you want to take, and take it.
Sponge photo by gosheshe