Mentorship Is Earned, Not Owed
This past Saturday, I had the great pleasure of moderating the final keynote session at the 2013 Blogging While Brown Conference, held in the Langston Hughes Auditorium of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Black Enterprise was proud to be a media sponsor of the event.) Each year, hundreds of bloggers from across the nation are drawn to this event, founded by Gina McCauley, to network and learn best practices of launching, writing, growing and making a successful career and/or business of blogging. I was privileged to share the stage with reigning stars of the space: Necole Kane, Angel Laws, Karen Civil and Claire Siobhan Sulmers (founders of NecoleBitchie.com, ConcreteLoop.com, KarenCivil.com and FashionBombDaily.com, respectively).
During the course of taking questions from the audience, one of the attendees asked how she could get a blogger from the panel to be her mentor. To their credit, all of the successful bloggers on the panel expressed their enthusiastic commitment to mentoring others in their organizations, and graciously offered to be available to her. Of course, as the moderator, I couldn’t just leave it at that. I asked everyone in the audience who needed a mentor to raise their hands; about 60 percent of those present did so. Then I asked how many of them were currently mentoring others. You guessed it: About a third of the hands came down (although a few hands that had not been raised also went up). My point: You will always have a shortage of mentors if too many of those who want one are not committed to also being one. It doesn’t make sense to me how so many of us expect to get what we are not willing to give.
When you ask someone to be a mentor, is your interest in their journey, or their destination? Too many of those who want what mentors have are unwilling to learn what they know or do what they did to get it. The exceptions have no problem attracting mentors; they have the spirit and attitude that inspires others to want to claim them as proteges. Here’s what they know:
You don’t secure mentorship by just asking someone to mentor you, but by studying and emulating, proving and showing yourself to be a true protege. My favorite proteges don’t just pick my brain, look to get hooked up or lust after my swag; they follow my example. They’re just as interested in where I’m from, what I’ve learned, how I think, what I read and who I am as they are in where my help can take them. In fact, one protege in particular had researched my past and studied me long before I knew she existed, even using the organizations and experiences I had in college as a blueprint for her undergraduate activities. She actually had me thinking that becoming a mentor to her was my idea. Her name is Sakina Spruell, and she would eventually become a colleague of mine at Black Enterprise, an accomplished journalist, editor and personal finance expert in her own right, and remains a dear friend to this day.
Mentorship is about what a protege is willing to do, not just about what a mentor is able to do. I’m amazed at how many people see my potential mentorship as a one way street, with all of the benefits coming to them, and all of the giving and sacrificing made by me. It’s all about what they can get, rarely about what they can offer. (How do you know what you can offer that I might find to be of value? See the previous tip. Also, chocolate works.)
On the other hand, I adore my proteges who are constantly thinking of ways to help me to advance my agenda, to make success a common cause, or to simply be thoughtful. (For example, one of my mentees, Mia Hall, just sent me some chocolate brownies with the most wonderful note of appreciation attached!) They understand that the mentor/protege relationship is like any other healthy relationship. It’s about two people allied to be of benefit to one another, not one using the other as a surrogate parent, or worse. You’d be surprised how easy it is for a mentor to feel like nothing but a booty-call (the booty being a job referral, a recommendation, a key introduction or other assistance) to an otherwise absent and unengaged mentee. You’ll have a hard time getting and keeping mentors if the relationship is all about them hooking you up.
Mentorship is not owed. It’s earned. Do successful people have an obligation to mentor? I believe they do. But they don’t have an obligation to mentor you. Everyone gets to choose—with limited time, energy and resources—their proteges, which means you need to see yourself as earning the privilege of being mentored, not getting it just because it would be helpful to you. Those who successfully secure and keep mentor relationships inspire and attract them via their work ethic, integrity, attitude, attentiveness and demonstrated potential (also known as performance), not based on how needy and helpless they are (or worse, a belief that they are somehow entitled). Remember, we get to choose our role models, but we are ultimately chosen by our mentors. It is your job to inspire that choice.
One of the things I consistently require of anyone I choose to mentor is that they be, or at least willing to be, a mentor to others. (How can you be too busy to mentor others, but still expect me to have time for you—like I’ve got nothing else to do?) Here’s my equivalent of hitting the mentoring PowerBall: Sending someone in need of guidance to be mentored by one of my proteges, with full confidence that that my referral will be invested in and valued by both parties, a fruitful relationship will bloom, and everyone in our shared network will be enriched and strengthened as a result.
So the next time you hunger for a mentor to feed your ambition and nourish your possibilities, ask yourself: Who am I feeding? Seek out and pour into worthy proteges just as diligently as you pursue influential, connected mentors to invest in you, and hold both types of relationships in high esteem.
UPDATE: This is incredible. As I was writing this post, Mia Hall, one of the proteges I mentioned above, was also writing a post for her Mia’s Full Court Press blog about me, titled “Pass The Baton!” Hope you enjoy the read as much as I did. Incredible!