Mentoring in Mythology, And Making It Work For You

I’m off to Dallas today to speak to the Legal Marketing Association’s national conference on how mentoring can be used to teach business development skills to attorneys.

Ever wonder where the term “mentor” originated?  As an engineering undergraduate student, I was required to take a few “social-humanistic” electives outside the engineering curriculum, and I chose “Great Books,” a course devoted to the study of Homer’s Odyssey.  When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he placed his elderly friend Mentor in charge of Odysseus’ young son Telemachus.   Athena also disguised herself as Mentor when she visited Telemachus, and encouraged him to go off and find out what has happened to his father during his lengthy absence, rather than give in to his mother Penelope’s suitors who are eager to convince Penelope to remarry because Odysseus is surely dead.  According to Wikipedia,

[b]ecause of Mentor’s relationship with Telemachus, and the disguised Athena’s encouragement and practical plans for dealing personal dilemmas, the personal name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.

Mentoring matters.  Whether it occurs as part of a formal, company or school-established program, or comes from an informal relationship between colleagues or friends, we can all benefit from sage advice and encouragement from the voice of experience.  So why doesn’t everyone have a mentor?  Or the right mentor?  In part, because it can be a time-intensive process that mentors often shy away from to avoid another drain on their time, and one that might be unproductive.  There are several ways around this.  First, if you’re a mentee looking to form a mentoring relationship, make it easy on your would-be mentor.  Show that you know what they’re about, why you value their insights, and how you won’t waste their time with small ball issues.  Second, find ways to minimize the time commitment while maximizing the learning.  One way to do this is to create a mentoring circle, where a handful of people in the same profession, but at different stages in their career, come together monthly to share issues, ideas, and solutions to potential problems.

I’m a big fan of mentoring circles because they encourage people to learn from each other.  While there is usually a senior “Mentor” around which the circle is built, the other circle members also act as mentors to one another, thereby teaching hands-on mentoring skills and hopefully creating a new generation of mentors for those coming up through the organization.  I’ll be talking about mentoring circles in Dallas, so check back for more details on that after tomorrow’s presentation.

Finally, what if you’re not in a position to create or participate in a formal mentoring circle?  Create your own informal circle.  Find friends who are similarly situated, and agree that you will get together at some frequency to talk about the challenges you are facing, and options for overcoming obstacles.  The opportunity to brainstorm, come up with a plan, and commit to your next steps is invaluable in creating accountability to help you actually take the actions you’ve decided are right for you.  Leaders make things happen.  If you aren’t getting the mentoring you want, what are you going to do to create it?

As Dame Agatha Christie said, “the secret to getting ahead is getting started.”  Getting started in building mentor relationships will help you unlock the benefits of mentoring in your own life.  Good luck!


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