DURING MY FIRST internship after college, at The Village Voice, an editor named Laura took me under her wing. She was tough and cool. She gave me great reporting advice, such as "Always take care of your bad guy." She had my back when I messed up. She sent me out to report on the Republican National Convention from the streets of New York and on Hurricane Katrina's aftermath from New Orleans — real newspaper work, despite my inexperience.
She also conceived of a yearlong feature series, which she called "Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young," and asked me to be one of several writers on it. After I'd published two stories in the series, a book editor contacted me and proposed that I write Generation Debt. That I co-opt Laura's idea and turn it into a tome with my name.
Long story short: I did. Laura and I had an incredibly awkward conversation, where she acknowledged that she wasn't in a position to write the book herself, and I apologized, futilely, for seizing this huge opportunity. We continued to work together, and she continued to offer great guidance. When she moved on to produce radio and TV, she even recommended me as a guest. But our relationship was never quite the same.
That's when I first understood that the old-school idea of having your boss as your mentor isn't always ideal. Office politics can compromise your loyalty, and loyalty can compromise your career. What happens when your mentor gets fired, or when you get promoted over him? What happens if your mentor finds your work subpar, or even thinks of firing you? There's no easy answer.
We need a new model of mentorship. We're living in an age of networks, not hierarchies; knowledge and wisdom is distributed, rather than concentrated among the gray hairs. Moreover, we're bringing more of ourselves to work and we're often chasing meaning over profit. The new model has to be more flexible and forgiving, to allow for the fact that mentorships, like any relationship, come in different flavors and change over time.
These days, I keep in touch with my mentors via email, Facebook, and Twitter, with the occasional lunch thrown in when we happen to be in the same physical place. I don't work directly with any of them. Some of these connections have extended over the years, and I hope they'll continue many more. But I'm always alert to the opportunity to get valuable advice in just one meeting. And I'm prepared to help my mentors just as they help me. In a business world characterized by endless flux, smarts can come from young folks as well as from older ones.
I'm very proud to call Will Rosenzweig a mentor. Will and I met when he was on a panel I moderated at a green-business conference. Will looks the part of a mentor, with his white hair and twinkling, benevolent air. But that's all that's stereotypical about Will, who has thought seriously about mentorship throughout his career. He now runs a venture-capital firm called Physic Ventures, which invests in companies that benefit human health and the planet. An important part of his job is mentoring young entrepreneurs from companies such as GoodGuide, an information service for finding socially positive products, and Novomer, a green-chemistry company.
As a young man, Will started a company called the Republic of Tea with Mel and Patricia Ziegler, founders of Banana Republic. The three of them chronicled the story of the business, which was also the story of mentors and a mentee, in a book called The Republic of Tea that reproduces many of the faxes — playful brainstorming, full of drawings and mind maps — they exchanged. At one point, Will admits to his difficulties navigating a relationship with someone who was by turns mentor and partner: "I didn't want to push to define this business relationship; I felt comfortable following it where it took me, even if it created some confusion and frustration (mutual, I'm sure) along the way."
Mentors, after all, are supposed to help you grow. This can't happen if the relationship is forced into a mold. I'm learning from Will that being a good mentor — or mentee, for that matter — takes a certain lightness of touch, comfort with ambiguity, and awareness of the potential for conflict. Increasingly, I'm trying to help others just starting out, and in each case, I approach the relationship as a two-way street. You both bring something to bear, if nothing more than fresh enthusiasm for work that has been taken for granted.
Though Will often emphasized the flexibility a good mentor must have, that doesn't mean this isn't a relationship with clear guidelines and obligations. Will keeps strict ethical rules, such as not investing in his students' startups, and he takes his mentees' personal lives into careful consideration when giving advice. He often writes and speaks about the importance of building real, not transactional, relationships in business and of taking the long-term view. His words on the subject have had a major impact around the world. Last fall, a committee of Nobel laureates awarded him the Oslo Business for Peace Award. In his acceptance speech, he summed up perfectly the philosophy of what makes a good mentorship great by comparing a business leader to a gardener: "A real gardener is not a person who cultivates flowers, but a person who cultivates the soil."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.