I consider myself fortunate to have mentors that have encouraged me both professionally and personally. But it may come as a surprise that I’ve never asked anyone to be my mentor. The truth is, there is no formal process for becoming a mentee or mentor. I hope this comes as a relief to someone because it was surprising to me when I first started out in the professional world. I thought someone would ask me to be their mentee, but they didn’t and while I looked up to several women around me, I never made the “ask.” Yet I was fortunate enough that the women I admired were generous in their time and guidance. I realize now that those most valuable relationships were those that were often found in a natural connection made with someone I admired.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In” laments in her book that when she gives speeches or attends meetings, a startling number of women introduce themselves and in the same breath, ask her to be their mentor. She calls it a “mood killer.” While the urge to make an “ask” when first meeting any business leader or person you admire can be strong, the interaction will be awkward at best, especially for the person who is asked.
Besides not putting someone on the spot at your first introduction, another benefit of a more natural mentorship is that the relationship will be reciprocal, in that both mentor and mentee will receive benefits from it. Seeking out someone solely for the value it will bring to you generally doesn’t signify the start of a reciprocal relationship, so asking a stranger to be your mentor is not the solution. The advice and guidance that a mentor can provide is a valuable asset for your career but just like love, you can’t force it. Surround yourself with good people and look within and outside of your organization and you’ll find those relationships.
Sandberg goes even further by saying that searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming. “Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”
I love this analogy and I think her point is this, while few people will argue that mentors are not important, no mentor, not even Sheryl Sandberg, will be your “Prince Charming.” Don’t wait around for someone to mentor you – it won’t be the answer to finding the perfect career with the corner office. Women still need to be confident, raise their hand, be leaders and encourage other women to do the same. Look for opportunities to expand your network and surround yourself with women who you look up to, professionally and personally.
One more important thing – when you can, pay it forward.
Rebecca Shireman is the senior editor of SpaceCoast Living, SpaceCoast Living HEALTH and SpaceCoast Living HOME magazines, the premier lifestyle publications serving Brevard County. She is currently is on the board of directors of the Brevard Cultural Alliance and the Women’s Business Center at Florida Tech. She is an active member of the Junior League of South Brevard, Inc. and volunteers with various other organizations throughout the community.