We recognize the importance of mentors in the lives of our clients. Many departments contract with local peer mentor organizations and we often encourage those involved in recovery groups to seek out sponsors. In many ways, corrections professionals have evolved to assume a mentor-like role in the lives of the individuals we supervise. So if we see the value in these relationships, what holds so many of us back from having a mentor of our own?
The most obvious hurdle might be simply having to ask someone. Sometimes it can feel a bit like a junior high school dance with people wanting to connect with someone across the room, but the fear of rejection, self-doubt or confusion as to who should make the first move can sabotage any social situation. Of course, once the dancing begins, confidence and trust between the two partners is established. The feeling that stems from two people working together and being committed to each other’s mutual success makes all the early discomfort and awkwardness well worth it in the end.
The good news is, finding a mentor won’t actually be as awkward as your junior high school dance. Although formalizing the relationship can require some level of directness, no one should be surprised by the proposal. In my experience, people are generally flattered and appear humbled when asked. But before I make any suggestions, I’ll share my experience and some of the mistakes I made along the way.
Early in my career, I desperately wanted a mentor. In fact, whenever I’d discuss this topic amongst my peers, I found most people shared my desire. I mean, who wouldn’t want someone in their life that could provide the answers to everything and unlock the secrets to success? The only problem was, that person didn’t exist. Years passed and I lamented how there was no one in my orbit worthy of such a title. At the same time, I felt bitter when no one appeared to have any interest in my development. I felt both entitled and rejected at the same time.
Today, mentorship means something very different to me. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some incredible people at several different stops in my career and I’m honored to call some of them mentor. It took me a long time to realize the people in my life who could provide the guidance and support I craved were always right there in front of me; I just never saw them for who they were.
I’m not sure where my unreasonable expectations of mentors came from. I suppose it was based on this image of an ancient guru, descending from the heavens to impart wisdom upon me that I would graciously accept without question. Now, that made little sense as I questioned everything, and it didn’t really matter who it was coming from. I was actually surrounded by quite a few successful people in my workplace, and yet, I didn’t look at them as hard working people who wanted to help others. I downplayed their success and made up reasons why they either couldn’t or wouldn’t be my mentor.
While my ego prevented me from taking advantage of the relationships I did have, I was at least open minded enough to stumble upon a few pearls of wisdom from outside of my network. I would read and listen to authors and podcasts that interested me and a big turning point was learning the concept of Wi-Fi as it related to mentoring, from Mindy Kaling’s book Why Not Me?
I took this message to heart and realized even if I would never be in a position to receive direct mentorship from some of the public figures I respected, I could still take their guidance wherever I could find it. Gradually, I began to apply this to some of the people I worked with as well. And the more I paid attention, the more my respect for those around me grew. As I thought more about this concept, I began to realize I could learn from anyone, whether they were my mentor or not.
Even though I felt like my personal and professional life was finally starting to take off, I wasn’t satisfied. I still wanted a mentor, but I began to look at my situation very differently than I had previously. If I was going to find my mentor, I was going to have to accept the following:
Whoever my mentor is, they won't be perfect
I had unrealistic expectations of the people around me and I failed to recognize the people I looked up to from afar only publicly showed the best version of themselves. If I was going to invest in someone, I had to accept that no one is perfect, and no mentor has the answers to everything, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help.
My mentor won't find me, I have to find them
This became painfully obvious over time. I have found plenty of people are more than happy to help from moment to moment, and a good supervisor will certainly talk about professional development, but it’s actually pretty unlikely someone will just offer to be your mentor. Remember, junior high school dance. I knew if I was going to have a mentor, I would need to be more intentional about building a relationship with someone I respected and eventually it was going to be me who formalized the relationship.
I have to act like a mentee if I want to ask someone to be my mentor
This was probably the most important conclusion I reached. I had to ask myself, was I living a life that attracted the attention of others who would want to support me? Was I gracious when anyone offered critical feedback? Did I ask thoughtful questions? Did I share my goals and my plans to achieve them? When the answers were all no, it became painfully obvious why I never had a mentor. I lacked the humility and open mind needed to be a mentee.
This post was supposed to be about finding mentors but as I get to the end, it might be more about examining ourselves. I eventually found my mentors and when I asked them to dance, they said yes. Whether you see value in labelling yourself a mentee or not, I think there is something to examining our relationships and taking ownership when we aren’t satisfied. So find yourself a mentor or steal the Wi-Fi of someone you respect. Either way, you’ll be glad you did.