Last spring, a young alumna from my college approached me about becoming her mentor. Naturally, my first reaction was, "Mentor? Good grief, I can barely make it through most days without losing my mind. How could I be a mentor?" But I got over that first reaction (with the help of 12 years of therapy) and told her I would be delighted.
Because here's the thing: being a mentor is a lot like being a mom, without the financial responsibility and wiping of butts. Here are a few parallels that I've discovered about the mentor/mom roles:
A mentor doesn't have to have all of the answers, just some of them. Even if I don't give myself enough credit, I do have 20 more years of experience in the world of work. I've learned a thing or two. So yes, I can convey knowledge to my mentee even though we work in different fields. I have more experience with office politics, with setting goals, with finding my own path. I can't tell her what decision to make, but I can tell her how I make decisions. Just like with parenting--we don't have to know everything. We just have to be willing to share what we know.
A mentor provides opportunities to excel. I can teach networking. I can open up my networks and connections to my mentee. If I have a chance to invite her to a meeting or to help with a project, I make those opportunities happen. As with parenting, our kids don't grow if we do everything for them. We set up ever-broader opportunities for them to learn and grow.
A mentor provides a safe place to ask stupid questions. There's something about the established roles or mentor/mentee that makes it safe to make mistakes and ask the questions that might look goofy if blurted out in a meeting. This relationship is all about growth. I'm not just a mentor; I'm also a mentee. I started a new job about six months ago and one of my coworkers is a social media and web guru. I am still learning the ropes. When I make a mistake, she comes to me and points it out with gentleness and positivity. When I do something well, she brags on me. When she has an opportunity for me to try, she throws it my way. And when I don't know my splash page from my back link, I feel safe asking her for help. Doesn't that sound like parenting? Parents create a safe environment for asking silly questions and making experimental leaps.
A mentor gives good feedback, including the hard truths. In work life, we often only get feedback and evaluation from our bosses--and that's a situation that can be scary. In the mentor/mentee relationship, a good mentor gives clear feedback when it is solicited. A mentor takes notes and shares them in a relationship that doesn't affect the pay raise or the pink slip. I can look my mentee in the eye and say, "You did a really good job with that communication. It was clever and effective. I liked these three things..." Or I might have to say, "I don't think you're seeing the whole picture here," or "In my experience, that's not going to get you to your goal." Like with parenting, feedback isn't confrontation--it's a chance to share ideas.