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The power of mentoring

Why should you find a mentor?
Vladimír Záhradník
June 14th, 2020 · 10 min read

The word mentor comes from ancient Greece, Homer’s mythological Odyssey. Mentor was a friend of King Odysseus of Ithaca, and since Odysseus considered him wise and prudent, he entrusted him with his son Telemachus as he went to the Trojan War. Telemachus treated Mentor as his father, and Mentor had a tremendous influence on him. To the extent that his form was taken by the goddess Athena when she wanted to say something important to Telemachus. Today, nobody thinks about the deeper meaning of the word mentor, and I think that’s a mistake. It reveals a lot about what mentoring is and how the relationship between a mentor and his protégé should work.

Mentor
Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Mentoring is a process of informal knowledge transfer. The one who passes on the knowledge is called a mentor, and the one who receives it is usually called a protégé (but I’ve also seen the term mentee). The mentor usually meets his protégé in person and gives his valuable advice in a friendly atmosphere. Often a friendly relationship is established between the mentor and his protégé, and mentoring often includes mental support to help the protégé overcome his obstacles.

About two weeks ago, at a meeting of our public speaking club Toastmasters Košice, I followed up on one of the most famous books by Robert Kiyosaki called Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Robert had two fathers: the first was his biological father — a poor dad — and the second was the father of his best friend Mike — a rich dad. Both fathers taught Robert how to succeed but with completely different approaches.

His poor dad believed that the key to success was education. He believed that if he studied well, he would get a decent job in a good company. He was highly educated, graduating from one of the most prestigious US universities, but still had financial problems. He believed in the traditional principles that he must work hard, save money, and not buy what he couldn’t afford. I would consider him a good employee, one who would loyally work for you for years. He is afraid of risks and likes stability.

On the contrary, the rich dad had completed only primary school. However, he was the exact opposite of the poor dad. He was a visionary, and he was not afraid of risks. He taught Robert not to say, “I can’t afford it,” but instead to ask, “How can I afford it?” Kiyosaki explained this in a story where he and his friend Mike worked for the rich dad. He deliberately paid them a low wage to make them angry and realize that they had to work for themselves and not others if they wanted to get ahead. At the same time, they both learned a valuable lesson — they shouldn’t think they had little money. Instead, they should learn how to make their money grow. Robert was given many such lessons and naturally resorted to the advices of the wealthy father.

Kiyosaki tries to emphasize in his book the importance of financial literacy. But I want you to take something else out of this story — how much of an impact a good mentor can have on you. Forget for a moment that Robert received financial advice from his rich dad. He could’ve also received advice on personal growth. Finding a good mentor is not easy. However, if you search wisely and patiently, a mentor can turn your life around by 180 degrees. A mentor seldom comes to you by himself. On the contrary, you need to make an effort to find him and reach out to him.

What should mentoring look like?

I have pondered this question a lot over the last year. In our club, I am the one responsible for education. And part of education is also a mentoring program. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t work as I would have imagined. However, I am slowly trying to improve it.

A blackboard
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I will follow up on the definition of mentoring from the introduction. If I were to define an ideal mentor, it would be someone very experienced in some area — such as public speaking — and willing to pass on the knowledge. On the other hand, the protégé should be eager for knowledge that is often hard to find in books. When two such people meet, an incredible symbiosis can arise. For this to work, several conditions need to be met:

  • The base principle: the mentor must be interested in mentoring someone, and the protégé must be interested in being mentored. In short, it is not possible without internal motivation
  • If the protégé is really motivated, he will find a mentor himself. He is aware of the value of information and is actively trying to obtain it
  • The mentor must have only a limited number of protégés (one, at most two) to be able to pay sufficient attention to everyone
  • The mentor meets with his protégé regularly at least once a week to discuss any problems. The mentor also acts as mental support
  • The protégé must be aware of the mentor’s value and desire his valuable knowledge
  • The protégé always addresses the mentor, never the other way around. The protégé is the one to ask questions; the activity must come from him. However, if the protégé suddenly ceases to be active, the mentor should be interested in why and can ask him about it
  • The rapport between a mentor and a protégé is long-term, at least a year. Only then will the benefits of mentoring begin to show in full
  • The protégé should set specific, measurable goals to focus on. For example, in half a year, he wants to give five prepared speeches. Such goals are easy to check up on because the progress is clearly visible
  • The mentor should also set goals. And what he wants to learn as a mentor. You would be surprised, but even the one who teaches and passes on knowledge learns himself. I’m a mentor, and I see it in myself
  • A protégé can also have more than one mentor, each in a different area — finance, personal growth, software development, and so on

And what is the reality?

Let’s see now what mentoring looks like in practice in our club. As I help create it, I see all the mistakes from the front row. When a new member comes to our club, we give him six weeks to look around and find a mentor. Until he finds one, I temporarily mentor him. Unfortunately, I noticed that members have not been showing interested in mentoring for a long time. Even if I contact them myself and offer help, they rarely utilize it.

A bulb
Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

The second problem is that there aren’t enough mentors. Our club has a young membership base, and we do not yet have enough experienced members. In practice, I often address people who should ideally still gain more experience regarding mentoring. And of the few people who can already mentor, not everyone is willing to do it. As I mentioned, there is no point in forcing anyone. For mentoring to work, both the mentor and his protégé must want it.

Because there are fewer mentors in our club, there are more protégés for everyone. And as our membership begins to grow, there may be three or four protégés per mentor. At this point, I don’t know how we’re going to handle this. However, I want to keep the quality as high as possible at all costs.

To sum it up, protégés are not interested in mentors and do not realize their value. At the same time, I note that most of our members do not set specific and measurable goals. In practice, I don’t even know how to help them improve. I think it is important to lead by example to start changing this perception. First and foremost, members need to see personalities worth following, and second, we need to subtly remind them of the benefits of mentoring, preferably through examples from personal experience.

Two approaches to mentoring

Let’s show the mentor’s positive influence on the protégé on two specific members of the club. Let’s call them Robert and Mark.

Robert has been active in the club since January 2018. He is not actively interested in a mentor, but we nevertheless assigned one to him. His mentor once said to me: “Ah, I forgot that I am also mentoring Robert. He doesn’t come to see me at all.” The mentor already had four protégés, and with so many people, I don’t expect any initiative from her. Apart from his lack of interest in the mentor, Robert has not set any specific club goals, and his progress is stagnating. He attends our meetings irregularly and rarely recently. Since I’m in charge of education, I’m naturally interested in what’s behind it. Then he said to me, “Vlado, you know… I can’t go to meetings regularly because it overlaps with my football training. I always have to decide where to go.” Currently, his reason has changed; he has a lot to do. In any case, I do not think that he is using the opportunity offered sufficiently. If you’re in a speaking club, you should naturally work on your speaking skills. In two and a half years, Robert delivered eight prepared speeches at the club, and from my point of view, his speaking skills are stagnant.

Mark came to the club in February 2020. From the first moment, he got a mentor, and we see in him that he is serious about speaking. For his mentor, the mentoring of the protégé was as new as for Igor that he had a mentor. Both took this opportunity very well and approached mentoring responsibly. Mark’s speeches, their positives, and shortcomings are regularly discussed together. I like Mark because he has no problem asking others for help. It has already happened that I, or other more experienced members, explained some things to him. Mark has made three speeches since February, two more are planned, and I believe he would have progressed even faster if he had the opportunity. However, Mark does not waste time and actively chooses other roles for the meeting. He realizes that every minute on stage moves him closer to the goal of being a good speaker. Let’s compare Robert and Mark in numbers. Mark has made three speeches in five months, and two more are planned. Robert started at a similar pace, making the first five speeches in about five months. However, then the turning point came — he gave his next speech after two months and the one after it in another four months. We have not heard him speak since October 2019. If he had actively used his mentor, I’m sure they would have worked on consistency, and today Robert could’ve been one of the best speakers in the club with a little effort. I think he could have been a mentor even.

My Mentor

I have had a mentor only once, if I may call him that. It was at a time when I was working in Bratislava. The company assigned me an experienced tester from Silicon Valley to teach me how to test the software product we were working on effectively. Being a curious type, I took full advantage of this opportunity. Several times a day, I made a list of questions, and we went through them together. Sometimes I just came to him and watched him at work. And we talked a lot about how life in the Valley works. I still use many of the things I learned back then.

How do you find a mentor?

I hope I convinced you that a mentor could help you significantly move forward. However, unless you are in an environment like our club, a mentor will not just fall in your way. Or will he?

You will often find a mentor among the people in your area. If you move among people, you will definitely notice someone whose skill you admire. In that case, I recommend that you just go to him and address him. At worst, he will tell you no. You have nothing to lose, but you can gain a lot if he agrees to your offer.

If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.

I love using this quote. Whether we like it or not, many people around us do not have high goals. On the contrary, mediocrity suits them. It is said that the five closest people in your area determine who you are. If you surround yourself with successful ones, they will pull you higher. If you surround yourself with the average, you will walk around the bars in the evenings, and they will pull you to the average. I try to pass on my knowledge and devour new knowledge. That’s why I move among various groups of people. However, I am aiming high and looking for people who can help me with that. So far, I have not found anyone in my area who could mentor me. However, I chose a different strategy.

If you can’t find a mentor, surround yourself with people with similar interests.

The key is to meet people who have a similar zeal as you. I go to various IT meetings, marketing trainings, and various events, but I also have specific hobbies that no one else in my area does; i.e., I’m blogging and starting with YouTube. I know two bloggers, one of them already has a decent readership, but neither makes professional YouTube videos. However, when I don’t have such people around, I use the Internet.

Over the last year, I have successfully discovered the charm of closed groups on Facebook. Many of them are very specialized, for example, aimed at aspiring YouTubers, and it isn’t easy to become a member. In one case, entry was conditional on purchasing an online video course that was not cheap. However, I invested in it because I knew that the other group members did the same, which tells me a lot about their inner motivation. I am already in several such communities. And besides them, I’m in many others, for example, focused on Linux.

Where to look for people communities?

I already use many of these options, but I’m still a complete newcomer to many of these platforms. I want to start using Reddit more actively soon. The groups on Telegram also look very promising.

Me as a mentor

Although I don’t have a mentor yet, some other people found me so interesting that they approached me to mentor them. Formerly, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second, but lately, I’m starting to realize my value, and I don’t want to waste my time.

I expect a hunger for knowledge from the protégé.

In practice, imagine that hunger as asking many questions, attending webinars and meetings, actively debating, reading, and studying a lot. In short, if I have to invest my time in someone, I expect them to make good use of it. Therefore, when someone like that comes to me, I always find the time. Conversely, I am no longer interested in mentoring just anyone in the club. I am aware of the value I bring to the member, and if the member does not realize it, I am not interested in him. I’m looking for active people because I’m like that myself. My time is not infinite, and rather than mentoring someone who doesn’t care, I will devote my time to developing some open-source project or self-study.

Your life is in your hands

The Future
Image by aalmeidah from Pixabay

It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true. I think a mentor can change your life, and one day you may reciprocate this kindness to someone else — as someone’s mentor. If you haven’t thought about a mentor yet, I hope this post gave you some inspiration. Whatever path you choose, keep being curious, and ask questions. As I mentioned recently: if we weren’t curious, we wouldn’t be on the moon to this day.

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