Dr. Donna Gessell is a professor of English and the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Teaching Award.

“We all need mentors, for every stage of our lives.” My dissertation director spoke these words over two decades ago. They became even more poignant when he added, “Right now, my mentor is helping me to learn how to age gracefully.” In the intervening years, he has gracefully completed his teaching career, and I have been reflecting on his retirement and on how his mentoring shaped my own career. The result is that I have become hooked on mentorship — not only seeking out mentors, but also being a mentor.

Dr. Donna Gessell

I find myself doing both on the Georgia-to-Georgia faculty exchange this semester. From among my colleagues at the David Aghmashenebeli National Defense Academy, I seek out others to advise me on everything from handling departmental politics to selecting the best cheeses when touring a new region. In return, when asked, I offer advice on next steps in a dissertation process, how to write letters of recommendation, and the advantages of teaching a unit thematically for higher order thinking.

In fact, my life is filled with mentors and mentees, and I would urge everyone to consider mentorship — in both capacities. A lot has been written about mentorship, but here I hope to use my experiences to provide practical advice on how anyone can seek a mentor or become a better mentor to make mentorship a rewarding experience.

Do I Need a Mentor?

The answer is yes. However, some people may not fully appreciate the need for a mentor, especially if their prior experiences have been less than optimal. Often, an organization encourages mentoring because it bridges gaps and adds value not only to individuals but to the organization. However, because needs and assets need to be mutually reciprocal, the best mentoring experiences are seldom assigned, but rather grow organically.

To decide whether or not you need a mentor, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What skill areas do you hope to develop further, even though you’re not sure what to do next?
  • What unasked questions do you have about your career — or your life in general?
  • What are the questions that your advisor or supervisor leaves unanswered but others seem to have answers for?
  • What big decisions are you facing in the near future that you don’t feel prepared to make?

With a mentor, you can search out answers for these questions and explore others as they arise.

What Is a Mentor?

Before seeking a mentor, it’s helpful to know what a mentor is and does. The origin of the word is in the Greek name Mentōr, who was advisor to the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s important to note that the word mentor is both a noun and a verb. Mentoring is more than being; it’s also doing. It’s a person who is “an experienced and trusted adviser” as well as acting “to advise or train someone, especially a younger colleague.”

It is also helpful to know what mentoring is not. Mentoring differs from role-modeling, advising, teaching, supervising, parenting, friendship, coaching, counseling, and networking, although it often encompasses parts of all of these roles.  Instead, a mentor combines resources that several different individuals may already provide: they supply information that you could glean from books, papers, seminars, and peers; they provide support and encouragement available from family, friends, and colleagues; they offer advice that workshops, colleagues, and peers also offer; they can serve as hosts for networking, just as meetings, correspondence, family, and friends can; and they can give feedback, like colleagues and peers do. However, by intentionally combining all of these resources, a mentor offers a consistency and coherence that is not available in other relationships.

Mentoring is a two-way learning process that works within a relationship in which (often) a more experienced person guides or advises a less experienced person. At its best, the relationship is reciprocal, in that both people learn from each other, playing on and to each other’s strengths. Although mentoring often provides intergenerational transmission of knowledge and know-how, some of the best mentoring occurs between individuals of equal status with differing yet compatible skillsets. For instance, for over a dozen years my writing partner and I have continued our reciprocal mentoring experiences: we meet every three or four weeks to offer each other advice not only on writing but on professional and personal situations. Both of us benefit from the energy we gain from the other through our ongoing mentoring relationship.

Finding a Mentor

Before reading further, please note the caveat that not everyone makes an effective mentor or mentee for everyone else; some mentorships prove to be ineffective or downright toxic. This is due to human nature, and to the various combinations of individual personalities. In the Analects, attributed to Confucius, a saying acknowledges these differences in people and their needs in relationships with others: “In life, there are three categories of people: one-third reduce our energy; one-third leave us energy-neutral, neither decreasing nor increasing our energy; and one-third increase our energy. Seek out the latter.” Of course, the trick is identifying with whom one can develop a mutually beneficial relationship and then intentionally increasing time with them. It is because of our personal differences that research finds that assigned mentors rarely work out. Therefore, it’s best to consider people assigned to us as advisors, but then to identify naturally occurring or individually intentional mentors.

When choosing a mentor, decide whether mentoring is best done in an individual/one-on-one setting or within a group setting. A group setting may be more appropriate when a wide range of opinions will be helpful, such as mentoring for writing or teaching.

Perhaps the biggest decision is whether or not you need a mentor who is internal or external to your organization. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each. An internal mentor provides insights into internal policies, practices, personalities, and politics. Also, you may already have a professional relationship with someone in your organization. However, an external mentor may be better able to provide perspectives on the larger field. Also, because external mentors are removed from the immediate situation, they may be less judgmental and therefore more rational than internal mentors. In cases where confidential issues are involved, external mentors are the better choice for consultation. Having both an internal and an external mentor may be the best solution, so that you can choose which one to consult for a particular issue.

Because a single mentor cannot provide solutions for every issue that may arise, some people develop a mentoring network. Having multiple mentors — either serially or simultaneously — works best to cover all of the different facets of life for which one may need advice. In addition to addressing a wider variety of topics, a mentoring network distributes the energy expended by any one person and provides a variety of perspectives.

Know yourself

Before you are ready to seek out a mentor, you must first know your needs, questions, and concerns. Pinpoint your specific needs: Are there specific new skills you want to develop? Are you seeking advice in areas requiring a specific expertise? Do you need feedback or information related to specific tasks? Are you in need of general encouragement? Or, are you seeking wisdom, trying to understand your situation from a more philosophical perspective? Then, make a list of contacts you know who could address your particular needs. Once you have narrowed the list of people, take initiative and request a meeting with each person to determine willingness and fit.

Each meeting can be informal, but make the meeting convenient for the other person’s time and location. For each, be familiar with the other person’s context and how it fits with yours. Start by introducing your commonalities. Then, identify your needs, questions, and concerns. You should be able to summarize your objectives for seeking a mentor. To determine whether the person is a good fit as a mentor, use your analytical skills. Ask yourself whether or not you are learning, and whether or not the conversation is providing new insights, useful strategies, or assistance in problem-solving. Finally, use a “gut check” to determine whether you feel comfortable with the person and their advice. Trust your head as well as your gut.

Beware of mentors who want to take too much credit for your success or who give advice without listening. Instead, look for someone who is genuinely open, who shows interest in others, and who has strong skills in the areas you’ve identified. Decide whether the person is an appropriate model for you. What aspects of their career, habits, and thought processes do you admire? Remember that their personality traits, habits, and views will rub off on you. Above all else, don’t assume that a mentor has to be just like you; instead, look for congruent values.

Approaching Your Mentor

Once you have identified a mentor, the two of you will need to make agreements in three general areas: communications, meeting logistics, and mentoring process. Be specific about your needs, respect your mentor’s needs, and agree to review your agreements on a regular basis.

  • Communications: Establish who is responsible for initiating meetings and communications.
  • Meeting logistics: Determine the means; face-to-face is best, but if the mentor is external, phone or Skype may substitute.  Consider your timeframe and availability. For duration, fifty minutes is good for a start; for frequency, meet at least every other week, but weekly is better. Establishing a regular time and day for a meeting helps with scheduling. No matter what the logistics, be reliable. Mutual trust is the foundation for a strong mentorship.
  • Mentoring process: Establish mutually-agreed upon objectives at the onset. Then, regularly check in on a planned and regular basis. At least every three months, assess your progress toward objectives and consider their continuing value.

Be honest with yourself and your mentor. At every contact, express appreciation.

Winding Up a Mentoring Relationship

When starting any new position, it’s important to consider a succession plan. Most of us don’t like to think about endings, but often the “endgame” is the most important part of a process. It’s important to understand that mentoring is a process. Just as it has a definite beginning, it should have a definite ending. Avoid feelings of guilt, and don’t let a mentorship just fizzle out; achieve closure to show respect for the relationship. Express appreciation for your mentor, perhaps with a special final session over a meal or at a mutually meaningful event.

Taking Initiative

Consider a mentorship, but remember that knowing what you need is key. Once you know, be bold about asking someone to mentor you. After all, most people are willing to help those who are eager to learn. Being a lifelong learner involves asking questions, and asking powerful questions results in valuable learning. However, always remember that showing respect for a mentor’s time is important.

Being in a mentorship yields rewards that you probably could not achieve as easily on your own. By taking advantage of your mentor’s education, innate abilities, intelligence, and network of relationships, you can shorten the time it takes to reach what you define as success.

Becoming a Mentor

Often much of the discussion about mentorship is directed toward the mentee. However, mentoring also merits its own discussion. It can be one of the most rewarding parts of a career or of life. However, carefully consider what’s involved because being a mentor will take considerable time and energy, much of which is unplanned.

In fact, being available is one of the key elements of being a mentor. Despite agreeing on a schedule and logistics, if you are truly addressing a mentee’s needs you should be available for the occasional emergency phone call. Although you can make your needs known by setting clear boundaries, expect the unexpected. Also, keep Confucius’s words in mind and choose your mentees wisely. The mentoring relationship should be reciprocal, and you should expect to increase your energy from the relationship.

You don’t have to wait to be asked to become a mentor. Many of the best mentoring relationships grow spontaneously from working together with others and finding that you become someone else’s “go-to” person for guidance. Formalizing the relationship can enhance its benefits for both of you because it will guarantee regular meetings with an agenda planned to achieve stated goals.

Respect is key to your role as mentor. Remember that the person who is seeking your advice has areas where they are more expert than you; seek those areas and recognize them. As your mentee grows, they may very well outgrow the relationship to become your friend, colleague, or — in some cases — your mentor.

Case Studies

Just after my dissertation director claimed that we all need mentors for every part of our lives, I read a study about mentoring for children. The researchers asked children to name their ten best friends. In the US, children usually listed only other children; however, in Europe, children included on average three adults. I began wondering why mentoring doesn’t come more naturally in our culture. I intentionally began asking my students who their mentors were — without using the term “mentor,” which was often foreign to them. As a result of the ensuing discussions, I increased the number of mentoring relationships I formed with my students. I close with descriptions of three of them.

The first is a former student who for years kept asking me, “What should I do with my life?” Resisting an easy answer, I instead questioned her. In the process of exploring these questions, she was living her life, being and becoming who she is today: successful and well-respected in her field and happy in her personal life. I knew she had become my mentor when I called her late one night to ask her what I should do with my life. Her answer was a single question — one that I left unanswered, yet that provided the answer to my question.

The second mentee is someone who was first my student, then my mentee, then my colleague, then a writing partner, and now my mentor. As he has grown, he has constantly attributed his growth to my asking him questions for which neither of us had answers, ones that caused him to pursue studies in areas that stretched his knowledge and skills. Honored to be named one of his greatest teachers, I am truly humbled by how much he has taught me. As Confucius said, “Teachers are known not by their own actions, but by the actions of their students.”

Finally, a student, who at first was extremely distant and disconnected from learning, has become my latest mentee.  Now a successful teacher, she recently wrote, “you taught me to love learning and to seek it out, and that character and integrity do mean something in this world.” I was speechless; all I can remember doing was welcoming her into a mutual learning process.

For more information about mentoring, please click here to access Mentoring Annotated Bibliography, prepared by Advanced: Excellence / Equity / Diversity.