In my experience, the mentor-mentee relationship forms and flourishes through a process. First, there is the encounter: the equivalent of professional love at first sight. Then, the relationship is tested and tried over time by events happening around it, and if the mentee and mentor can get past those bumps in the road, trust emerges. Next, because mentors prove time and time again that their perception is accurate, the connection is sealed.
Finally, if the mentee and mentor care about the relationship long enough, a phenomenon occurs: the internalization of the mentor’s perspective.
From that point on, the mentor’s worldview lives permanently “inside” the mentee, and can be called upon to provide advice, to self or to others. When the posture of the mentor is internalized, mentees are ready to give back to the community and nurture the next generation of mentees in “pay it forward” mode.
I was barely out of university when I met Susan✷, who headed the small but vibrant office of an international service firm. A seasoned executive in her 40s, Susan spent most of her time on clients’ premises. When she was in the office, she exuded conviction that could move mountains and a fierce sense of purpose.
Ruthlessly anti-corporate, she fought her own leaders for causes that mattered to her, yet was devoted to the business. This approach gained her a certain street cred with clients and ultimately, with us, her team. She excelled at sales in a way I had never seen anywhere before. Susan’s ability to sell – a complex, intricate people skill – was at full display during events the company ran for their clients. Everywhere Susan went, she was followed by groups of intently listening, head-nodding clients, to whom she spoke in low tones, as if sharing a secret.
I was mesmerized to observe very senior people so unabashedly in love with what she was telling them. It took me several years to understand that what was so compelling about Susan was that her professional posture was fully aligned with her personal values: honesty, excellence in service and profound loyalty to both her business (despite the occasional rebellion) and her clients. She made that alignment transparent and this in turn made people feel safe around her.
I learned through the encounter with Susan that trust is enabled by the process of mutual detection of values that two individuals hold in common. Lack of shared values will prevent a mentoring relationship – or any business endeavour, for that matter - from forming.
From the initial encounter, mentees and mentors go on a journey together. And just like when people travel together, a lot of the expedition happens because, or in spite, of coincidence and luck.
If the mentor-mentee duo can make it past the bumps in the road, magic will happen.
I met Mark during an assignment as a presenter to students he taught at a university. When Mark left his post a year later, the university asked me to continue as the new lecturer. I immediately invited him back as a guest speaker. He accepted, and we started working together: we built up the programme and recruited more practitioners. The initiative started gaining momentum.
One day, some students said something nice about the programme to another organization, which called me, and from that phone call, another opportunity was created. Now, as the work around the new project intensifies, it still feels like we are just getting started.
I observed Mark’s versatility throughout different assignments: he was in turn a manager, an advisor, and finally a supplier of services when he contributed to the initiative I was responsible for. Regardless of the role he occupied, he remained in mentor posture.
These interactions taught me that hierarchical dependencies attached to roles are important but not exclusive: it is possible to work for someone, manage someone or be a supplier to someone and still be the person who elevates the discussion, who brings a new perspective, who enlightens the room.
A mentor will remain a mentor regardless of other factors.
Pay it forward
In my experience, there is a point in the mentor-mentee relationship when the mentee becomes self-sufficient and no longer needs to solicit the mentor: by dint of listening to their mentor time and again, the mentee knows how the mentor would approach a given situation – he or she has internalized the insight-producing capability of their mentor. And from there, if asked for help, mentees can come up with answers for themselves or for others.
I met Jane years ago through a job interview. She was transitioning from an executive level role to running her own company. Later, after I left the job to start my own business, I sought advice from her on how to set up the structure, how to write a contract, how to prospect for customers. I know today that some of the things I went to her for at first were petty and unimportant. They must have seemed to her too, but she always provided precise, thoughtful answers, as if speaking to someone at her level and with her experience.
Lucid and factual as she was, she never expressed doubt about my ability to see my plan through, even though my first business plan was naïve at best. Because she never mentioned the possibility of failure, I never really considered it myself. Ultimately, I developed projects across Europe, in several languages, with senior stakeholders, many of whom I work with to this day.
With perspective, I know how lucky I have been to have worked with someone who had this level of strategic patience and who made me believe I would pull everything together.
Today, I strive to apply the posture Jane demonstrated to me - in my own work with people starting their journeys as entrepreneurs or professionals.
One never knows how someone’s potential may unfurl, until it does.
Ultimately, a mentor is a key figure in the process of shaping one’s own professional posture. If we choose our mentors wisely, and devote attention to the relationships, our mentors will help us create a better version of ourselves.
✷ Names have been changed.