Seeking out a mentor forms the cornerstone for so much career advice. I personally dish it out myself, especially to young women tackling the career obstacle course.
The power of mentoring is clear; countless studies have shown that having a mentor is vital in progressing your career. I’ve even written about it in academic publications and participated in mentoring programs. If there was a mentoring flag to fly, I would have had it on my house like a patriotic American might fly the stars and stripes.
I’ve had a number of mentors during my career as a cardiothoracic surgeon. They are virtually all men, owing to the overwhelming male majority in my profession. Some have taught me the procedural aspects of my job and others have shown me the value in other non-technical skills.
There have been aspects of my mentors that I have very deliberately chosen not to emulate, behaviours or practices that aren’t right for me or in some cases, that just aren’t right.
Over the course of my career to date, there have been around six or so people who would fill the role of mentor, of confidant and guide. In recent years though, the list seems to be shrinking.
Outgrowing a mentor isn’t always a bad thing: often it’s a good thing. It often means their work is done.
But when mentorship goes bad, when you see something in a person you have admired, that you aren’t okay with, or, worse, when you feel let down, it can be a heavy blow. Potentially to your career but also to you personally.
When I have had previously good mentor relationships go bad, I struggled to find the reasons at time.
Were they always like this but I was just too enamoured with them to see? Did they slowly reveal more and more naturally over time to the point where the real them was not what I wanted or needed? Did they see me now not as an equal, but as a rival? Had we simply outgrown one another?
Whatever the precise answer it was a blow to realise that that relationship was over. In one instance, after such a long and connected period of time working closely, it was akin to divorce.
The thing with mentors is that either because we’re told to or because we want to, these relationships hold incredible significance. These are people who have shaped us in vital ways. They are the people who have been there at significant junctures in our professional and sometimes personal lives.
They have held our trust, our reverence, our awe and respect. Those are all big-ticket emotions. And when the bonds of mentorship break, for whatever reason, the feeling of loss is real.
Mentoring is a vital tool that has benefits for both the mentee and the mentor. And in pursuit of seeking that out it can be easy to elevate these people to being infallible.
With all the reliance placed on getting a mentor, is it possible that we have elevated the importance of mentorship such that we see these people as heroes to the extent that disappointment is inevitable? I believe, that sometimes, the answer is yes.
I hope that the difficult experiences make me a better mentor and a better mentee. I hope I approach that mentor relationships in future with openness, honesty, realism as well as the best of intentions. I never want to let my mentees down in the same way I hope that I never let my mentors down.
Bad mentoring and bad mentors will happen and that may be devastating but it presents a chance to spread my wings, consider where I am and reassess where I want to be.
Mentoring is and should remain a special relationship but it’s not the only important relationship in your professional life. Instead of seeking out one infallible hero I think the safer bet is to seek out a trusted group and try to be you own hero.