I worked for more than a decade in white, male-dominated environments before I started my own company. During that time, very few people at the top stared down at my brown skin and long brown hair and thought, “She reminds me of me,” and reached out to give me advice or mentorship. Yet, I never lacked for great mentors because I learned three key approaches.
Flip the script
In most companies, mentorship is usually targeted at junior employees. In startups there aren’t even informal mentorship programs, much less formal ones. And if you’re a founder, mentors are even harder to find. Especially if you have a “mental model” of what a mentor should look like.
When I say, “mentor,” most people conjure a wise elder who takes them under her wing and imparts priceless advice and ongoing guidance. In reality, a mentor is almost never a personal coach or a parent figure; she is a person--as flawed and unique as any human--to go to for a specific problem. It’s impossible for one person to have all the answers and a single mentor can’t address all your needs.
You can’t force mentoring
You can lack for mentorship even in a formal mentoring program. That’s because mentorship without a unifying purpose can feel awkward. A mentor, ideally, is someone with whom you connect based on background (“she reminds me of me when I was her age”), interests, values, or even a problem to be solved. The best mentors in my life looked nothing like I had envisioned and nothing like me. We connected through a shared passion.
Sometimes, the best mentors find you. I met Ben a few years back when he was starting a business in the Hispanic market and an acquaintance thought I would be a great person to give Ben guidance. But when I realized that Ben and I shared a passion for helping people and that he was a product design guru, it didn’t matter that I was supposed to be giving him advice or that he is more than 10 years younger than me. I enlisted Ben’s help with my design problems. Now, I consider him a mentor.
It can be difficult not to resent that the world glorifies the young, or even to discount someone younger than you. Instead, I’ve learned that a beginner’s mind is essential, no matter your age.
We can all learn something from almost anyone--whether it’s about a specific topic or about ourselves. All it takes is a willingness to go into a situation admitting we don’t have all the answers.
[Image: Flickr user Koro]