What is it that we want most out of a mentor? Throughout history, different terms have been used to describe the various roles that mentors play. In ancient Greece, a muse was a source of knowledge and inspiration for songwriters and storytellers.
Other mentors are more like coaches who guide and provide psychological support to players who may actually be more skilled than the coaches themselves.
Sometimes, mentors are highly respected practitioners, like artisanal masters of a craft to aspiring apprentices. Or think of the ultimate mentor of mentors, a Jedi Master like Yoda from whom younger hopefuls seek inspiration and wisdom. These and others are master mentors--the men and women who teach us to strive toward a dream while keeping us grounded to everyday realities.
While it is up to each of us to be good, I discovered early in my career that having just a handful of people committed to your fulfillment and success can determine whether or not you are able to realize your aspirations. We all ultimately choose how and with whom we spend our time; whether or not we are surrounded by good people is up to us.
So let's consider the different roles that mentors can play and what they can contribute to our lives. The following roles described here are not mutually exclusive but they are often embodied by different people.
1. Masters of Craft
Master mentors who are at the highest level of their craft are usually among the most iconic figures of their respective fields. They tend to be members of the old guard, all of whom attained their superstar station and accumulated wisdom only after years of practice and experience.
Masters of craft can give you insight into the history, values, and current state of your industry and help you better see why other respected leaders in your area are so good at what they do. Master mentors share their wisdom with us and teach us the values and the skills we need to become the best in our professions. He or she should help you identify, realize, and hone your natural strengths toward the closest state of perfection as possible.
2. Champions of Our Cause
As the relationship networking expert Keith Ferrazzi says, you need to have someone "who's got your back." In any organization, you should make sure there is someone who will champion your cause. There will be times when the thing you need most from your mentor is emotional support and the knowledge that there is someone there who cares about you.
But champions are not just advocates; they should also be able to help connect you to others. Your champion is usually a superior in your workplace who is looking out for you and supporting your career path.
3. Co-piloting Colleagues
Not all mentors need to or should be superiors. It can be immensely useful to have a copilot, buddy, or mentor. This type of relationship can develop when you are on-boarding someone new, helping him figure out where to go for lunch, showing him how the office tech works, and introducing him to others. A copilot is a peer mentor and your go-to colleague for working through major projects or tasks.
This type of mentor is valuable because the relationship is reciprocal--you are peers committed to supporting each other, collaborating with each other, and holding each other accountable. When you have a copilot, both the quality of your work and your engagement level improves. The reason is simple--who really wants to work alone?
Who can you go to when you need a confidant or a psychological boost to help get you through a difficult situation? Anchors are trustworthy mentors who always show up when you need them. They may play less of a day-to-day role in helping you hone your skills, but they are there for objective advice and compassionate support as needed. We need people who can counsel us while keeping our best interests in mind and help us see how we can grow and improve, even in uncertain times.
Often, anchors are close friends, parents, or community leader. Whoever they are, they support us in our professional and personal lives--from task prioritization to work-life balance, to remembering our values.
5. "Reverse" Mentors
I asked one of my mentors to identify the one thing mentors should expect in the mentoring journey. His response: "Be prepared to be mentored." By 2020, the millennial generation--those born between 1980 and 2000-- will represent 50 percent or more of the workforce. Because I frequently invest in new technology, I'm constantly meeting and learning from folks younger and more technologically skilled than I am. But reverse mentorship is about much more than just "the young" up-mentoring "the old" on technology.
For leaders, reverse mentoring is an opportunity to collect candid upward feedback on engagement and leadership style. Moreover, when millennials feel that their perspectives matter too, they become more open to learning. Organizations need to equally embrace younger workers' fresh perspectives and older workers' wisdom and experience to create more flexible, meaningful, and collaborative workplaces.