Your Mentors are Fallible
As much as I hate the word mentor, I still use it, because it is so important to many.
Many of us hold on to the hope that our unicorn mentor will come along and serve as the Swiss Army Knife of professional advice. But that’s too high an expectation to place on one person. A bit of non-career advice to you: relying on one person to be the sage on every topic is rather fraught. See, I’ve got a range of opinions that extends beyond careers.
If you are going to construct your professional well-being around a person you need to understand that they will make mistakes. And if they say they don’t or haven’t, then they likely don’t have the insight you need to serve as your mentor! (Poor mentor tendency #1)
When you think about what is true of your most important relationships running the gamut from parental, sibling, friends and professional colleagues and bosses, one thing is absolutely true across all of them. (And remember for the vast majority of you reading this, I don’t know you or your people). The one thing I know to be true is that they are on occasion wrong. However, the skepticism that comes from spending a good chunk of your time around them lets you hear what they say with the discernment of when they are speaking outside their expertise.
We often assume that what our mentors say is correct. I mean, they have that title in our lives, there are expectations. Right? Nope, not really.
A good mentor should say at times things like:
- “This is outside of my experience”
- “I have a bit of understanding of this area, but you would be advised to speak with other people too”
- “I’m a big fan of your reaching out to other people too.”
- “I’ll offer my advice and give you some context for why I think that’s true but will also offer the caveats and where my experience might be lacking.”
- “I want you to own the synthesis of understanding what’s happening through multiple conversations and making decisions based on that.”
I’m also not someone who finds your pushing against or asking questions about what I’ve offered as advice to be distasteful. My role as mentor is not your unquestioned subservience. If you find out that the person playing the role of mentor has those expectations, they might not be the best person for you. (Poor mentor tendency #2) Particularly if they may simply pass off their lightly grounded understanding as foundational truths. They aren’t in it to help you, but to feel more important.
And we hope that part of why they have chosen to dedicate their time and expertise to your development is that they see your promise and intelligence. That means your asking questions and hopefully pushing forward in new directions with your unique experience and in different timeline.
I’m a pretty big fan of having mentors who can bring different perspectives and areas of knowledge depending upon what you need. Let's say you are going to choose just the one as your ride-or-die, you would be pretty well served to ask them a question like:
- What would you say are your areas of greatest expertise?
- What are the secondary areas?
- Are there areas where people assume I have expertise where I don’t?
Jot down those notes while they share with you those answers. Your goal here is to better understand how they can help you. Perhaps then you might say to them in the future, “I’ve a question about something that you’ve told me is outside your area of greatest expertise. Are there people you can recommend that I speak with, or might you find out for me?”
It’s a good thing for you to take the pressure of your mentor that way. And it can create a little less likelihood of an uncomfortable conversation down the line.
I fear that one of the more deflating expressions I toss oh-so-casually at people is “realistic expectations.” Not because I want to be where hope goes to die. Rather, I want you to have as little surprise and disappointment in the people you trust.
Ultimately, right sizing your expectations will mean that you will know when you need further counsel. It’s a mentor. Not a messiah. That’s the point.
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.