T wo young men eagerly anticipated meeting with their mentors for the first time. One of them would find the experience to be the best of times; for the other, it would feel more like the worst of times.
Kyle was in his early thirties, a rising executive with a software startup company in a major city.Outwardly, he appeared self-assured and successful, the type of person envied by his peers. From their perspective, he had it “all together.” But inside, the real Kyle felt nothing but turmoil. He was nursing the emotional bruises of a broken engagement. His personal finances were in shambles; despite a very comfortable income, he had accumulated debts totaling into five figures. And even though his job was both challenging and personally rewarding, Kyle had grown weary of his day-to-day routine. What do I want to do with my life? was a question he often asked himself, but he did not know where to look for the answer.
Perhaps it would help to find a mentor to guide me through some of these issues, Kyle reasoned. Finally, he mustered up the courage to approach Walt, a man about ten years older, and ask whether he would be interested in helping him through a mentoring relationship.
“I didn’t know Walt real well,”Kyle says,“but I had observed some character qualities in him that I admired. He was more mature and obviously had already worked through many of the issues I was facing. He seemed quiet and laid-back, sometimes even a little distant, but from listening to him in discussions, I knew he was deep, well read, and thoughtful. I could see how he tried to integrate different ideas from influential writers and apply them in practical ways, and since I’m that kind of person, too, I thought we would hit it off well.”
When approached about serving as a mentor,“Walt jumped all over it,”Kyle recalls.“I could see that it meant a lot for someone to ask him to become his mentor.He seemed pleased, confident, and receptive. I felt good as well, certain that I had gone to the right man for mentoring.”
That certainty quickly began to fade, however. “When we got together for the first time, I came with no agenda,” Kyle says. “I was looking to Walt for leadership, expecting him to say something like, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.’But right from the beginning, he seemed to struggle with defining how our relationship would take shape. Finally, he gave me a book and suggested that I read it, and we could discuss it each week when we met in his office.We did that, but even in that initial meeting, I worried that we might be going nowhere. Something was missing. I just didn’t know what.”
What Kyle had been hoping for was a trusting relationship with open, honest interaction with his mentor on a variety of topics, both business and personal. Instead, he wrestled with having to complete the reading assignments, feeling he was expected to come ready for the next session, much like being enrolled in a college class.
“I don’t think Walt intended to do so, but he made me feel pressured. I felt guilty when I would arrive for a meeting unprepared—as I often did. That put me under extra stress, which I did not need or want at the time.”
Before long, Kyle began to purposely look for ways to cancel the meetings.“I just felt so inadequate, like every week I was letting Walt down.And when we did meet, it wasn’t what I was looking for. I had thought that with his years of experience and insight, Walt could show me how to reach my goals faster, and that through sharing from his life, he could provide me with a kind of road map to follow:What were the disciplines, the things you do and don’t do, to get ahead in business—and in life?
“I had also envisioned a relationship that would be mutually beneficial, a win-win situation in which we could learn from one another. But we never got to the point where we started to get to know each other on a deeper, personal level. I never felt invited to enter into his life and world.And I never felt comfortable meeting in his office—like I was intruding into his busy schedule. I thought it would have been great to just hang out together, even at a restaurant, simply getting to know each other better, but that never happened.”
Eventually, the “mentoring” relationship dissolved and they stopped meeting, although to this day, Kyle holds deep respect for Walt and still considers him a friend.
Like Kyle, Brian took the initiative to find a mentor. He was twenty-eight, not yet married, and an attorney with a law firm that specialized in the transportation industry. For him, the catalyst for seeking a mentoring relationship was attending a men’s conference on personal spirituality.He had felt challenged to take a serious look at the spiritual dimension of his life, thinking it could provide a sense of balance that he lacked, but having no idea how to go about that.
At the suggestion of one of the speakers at the conference, Brian started going to a series of follow-up meetings, but after several weeks he decided he wanted more personalized attention. After one of the meetings, he asked Steve, a regular participant, if he knew of anyone he could talk with one-on-one about some spiritual questions he had.
Brian recalls what happened next:“Steve looked at me, paused for a couple of moments, and then said,‘Hey, I can do that. I like to work with guys like you. Would you mind meeting with me?’ ‘No, I wouldn’t mind at all.That would be great,’ I replied.”
Steve, who had been mentoring younger men for years, had casually noticed how Brian interacted at the meetings and had already decided that if the young attorney showed an interest in being mentored, he would offer to help.
“Judging from Brian’s comments—in the meetings and in casual conversations we had before and afterward—I sensed that his life was in chaos,” Steve comments. “Soon after we started to meet, it became clear that he wasn’t sure about much of anything in his life. Attorneys are trained to act as if they are in command of any situation. Who wants to go to someone who admits,‘Gee, I don’t have any idea what we should do!’? But Brian was struggling, professionally and personally, and desperately needed to find some direction for his life.”
So while their meetings initially had a spiritual focus, the two men eventually talked about virtually every aspect of their lives. For instance, when he met Steve, Brian had been dating a young woman for several years but was uncertain whether to pursue marriage. Talking about his concerns, Brian realized they were hardly insurmountable, and he and Larissa now have been married for five years and have two children.
Steve, who had enjoyed many successful years in business, also helped Brian work through a variety of career-related issues, ranging from whether to take the risk of starting his own law firm to how to resolve some very difficult personnel problems.
“At this point in our relationship,”Brian says,“I can’t think of any area of my life that Steve hasn’t touched. But the thing I like best is that when I go to him for advice, even now, he’s not quick to tell me what he thinks I should do. It’s more that he helps me to find the answer myself. If it’s a situation he can relate to, Steve tells me about his own experience.He also throws out a lot of questions, probing for pertinent information and asking if I have thought about factors that might have a bearing on my decision. He likes to help me narrow down to a couple of choices, but then he keeps asking questions until I reach my own conclusion.
“Frankly, if he were to give me quick solutions, I might not accept them very readily.His process of raising questions helps me to think things through and, once I find a resolution, I feel a sense of ownership—that it’s my decision, not something forced on me.”
Steve explains why he has found this approach so useful through his years of mentoring:“Many young people today are carrying a lot of clutter around with them: broken relationships, no clear-cut set of values, unfulfilled goals and desires, disoriented careers, and a general lack of purpose. Rather than trying to fix things quickly, I find it’s much more effective to challenge their thinking, to get them to work through the whats and whys and hows of the issues they are facing.”
According to Brian, one reason the mentoring relationship grew so strong is that Steve made him feel a part of his life.“From the start, he was real, nothing phony about him,” Brian says. “And then he invited me into his home, opening up his family life to me. It was great to see him living out the principles he talked about with me when we would meet.To let me into his private life took trust on his part, and trust begets trust.My trust in him increased tremendously.”
Clearly, Brian’s experience in being mentored was far more gratifying than Kyle’s, but as commentator Paul Harvey likes to declare, in both cases there is “the rest of the story.”
While Kyle’s first experience in being mentored fell far short of what he had envisioned, he did not give up on the concept of mentoring entirely. Not long after he and Walt parted ways, Kyle began meeting with another man, Jack.The contrast between the two mentors was huge in Kyle’s estimation.
“After my first experience, I felt a bit gun-shy,”Kyle says,“but still wanted to find someone who could mentor me. Jack was another man I looked up to, so I asked if he would meet with me.He caught me off guard when he agreed to do so, on one condition: that I would give him permission to probe into any area of my life and that I would be honest in my answers, as he intended to be with me. That was an intimidating request, but when Jack started talking openly with me about his own struggles, his vulnerability freed me to be more open with him.
“Another thing I liked about Jack was that he came with little or no expectation of me, and his agenda was wide open.He was just sincerely interested in being able to help me in whatever way he could.”
Over time, Kyle became a member of Jack’s extended family, spending hundreds of hours in his home, observing his mentor’s life in action, not just in words.“Jack and his wife would often have several guys over at a time,” Kyle says, “but it was rarely to get together just for a meeting. There was always an element of family involved: building relationships over a meal, playing games, watching a basketball game, or simply sitting around and talking about anything that came to mind.”
The guidance and support Kyle had hoped to find with Walt finally came through his relationship with Jack. “It’s not that Walt didn’t help me at all, because he did. But spending time with Jack really put me on a fast track, professionally and personally. I really grew through Jack’s mentoring. If I were to sum up in just a word or two the impact he had on my life, I would say it was life changing.”
As for Brian, he and Steve maintain a strong friendship today, more than seven years after they started their mentoring relationship, and they still meet frequently for breakfast or lunch to catch up on each other’s lives.
“Growing up,” says Brian,“if I thought of mentoring at all, I envisioned it as a six-month project where someone meets with you for a while and then goes away. It hasn’t been that way with Steve. I never felt like I was a project with him, but rather that I was a part of his life and that our time together was as important to Steve as it was to me.”
After discovering firsthand the benefits of having a mentor,Brian has begun mentoring men himself over the past several years.“I really didn’t go out ‘recruiting’ someone to mentor. It just started happening. One guy and then a couple of others—all about my age—soughtme out for advice.Now we meet regularly and I try to be a help to each of them. All I’m doing is communicating what Steve has communicated to me over the years.
“One fellow and I had been riding bikes together for a long time, and he began to ask me about some issues he was facing at work and in his marriage.Then he started to ask me about spiritual things, and eventually he opened other areas of his life to me as well. Our wives have become good friends, and I think we are all helping each other. This experience has been incredible!
“But if Steve had not started mentoring me years ago—modeling it for me—I know I wouldn’t be mentoring others today. I would just be out there floundering around, trying to earn a paycheck and somehow find time to spend with my family. I definitely wouldn’t have the passion to help others if I hadn’t learned what it meant in my own life.”
The names and minor details in this “tale of two mentors” have been changed, but both stories are factual. The comments from the men being mentored appear just as they expressed them. And these accounts are indicative of the state of mentoring today: Everyone agrees about the need for it, but too few people are engaged in this process—especially in its truest, most meaningful sense.
The vastly different experiences Kyle and Brian had with their first mentors can be attributed to one simple, self-evident truth: All mentors are not created equal. But the difference for these two was not so much the personalities, abilities, or comparative life experiences of their mentors. It was more a matter of two men with a sharply different understanding (or misunderstanding) of the role of a mentor and what a mentoring relationship should look like.
There is an old saying that affirms an obvious yet profound reality: People don’t know what they don’t know.This certainly applies to mentoring. For instance,Walt, the first mentor we met, may have sincerely believed he was mentoring Kyle by providing him with material for discussion. But he missed the point entirely. In seeking a mentor, Kyle wasn’t just wanting information. He was looking for a helpful relationship, for someone who could provide a road map—or a compass of sorts—to show him how to find his way in the chaotic world around him. Kyle wanted answers for the everyday struggles he was facing in both his personal and professional life.He just didn’t know how to ask for it—and Walt didn’t know how to provide it.
Never has the need for mentoring been greater.Constant change in our society has spawned constant uncertainty. And this constant uncertainty creates a yearning to connect with someone who can provide comfort as well as answers. In a chaotic world—whether it’s in the workplace, the home, or the community—it helps to find a person who has already been at the stage of life where you are and has learned through the trials of life, as well as its triumphs.
Most of what takes place today under the guise of mentoring tends to be based on a task or a position, rather than on developing the whole person. While the concept of mentoring is gaining more and more acceptance, particularly in business, it typically takes a formal, programmatic approach. The mentor and the one to be mentored each submit an application. The mentoring program coordinator determines which mentor to match with which “mentoree,” aligning needs with experience and expertise. Then both individuals receive training in how to conduct themselves to maximize results from this mentoring relationship. If it sounds sterile, that’s because it is.That’s the way “mentoring” is normally done in the world of business, but it’s hardly the best way, particularly in a long-range sense.
It’s time to bid a not-so-fond farewell to this old paradigm and move into the twenty-first century.We need to redefine what mentoring truly is and then to redesign how we go about doing it. In many cases, people today who call themselves mentors are merely going through the motions. They are motivated by guilt or necessity, not by a passion for making a difference in the lives of others—and that is the crux of the problem.Mentoring is not a matter of skills and behavior; it’s a matter of the heart.
The heart of mentoring is helping people to reach their fullest potential in life, not just to teach them how to perform a task the right way, to carry out the responsibilities of a position, or to acquire knowledge, even though those obviously have value. And we can’t separate our professional lives from our private lives; if our private lives suffer, they will affect our professional lives, and vice versa.
In classic discussions of mentoring, the center of attention usually is the mentor, not the one being mentored. These discussions focus on the mentor imparting wisdom and knowledge in a particular area of expertise to the person being mentored, but little is said about relationships.
I’m convinced that people are tired of theory, tired of learning concepts that seem disconnected from real life. That’s why I have enjoyed several viewings of Finding Forrester, a movie starring Sean Connery. It’s a moving drama about an aging white novelist, William Forrester, who unintentionally develops a kinship with a keen black teenager, Jamal Wallace. But it’s far more than a story about how friendships can transcend age and racial differences. At its heart, Finding Forrester is a story about the impact mentoring can have on the lives of both people involved.
As we meet Forrester and Wallace, it becomes evident that both are looking for something, only they don’t know what. Forrester, a recluse who once wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, recognizes a void in his life.Wallace, a talented basketball player, is struggling to find an outlet for another passion: writing. Over time, they discover they can help one another. Forrester becomes Wallace’s writing mentor, but in the process,Wallace teaches him some valuable lessons as well.
Finding Forrester is fiction, but through the years I have experienced and observed many mentoring relationships that have had a similar impact. If you’re like me, you want to learn principles of mentoring that work, but you want to encounter them through examples of real people in real-life situations.Principles communicated through story have a more profound effect on people and their lives than ideas presented outside the scope of human experience. I have found stories and principles from the Bible to be great examples of this.
So, over the chapters that follow, I will unwrap this new paradigm, this new “worldview” of mentoring, utilizing illustrations from my own life and from the lives of people I have been privileged to know.We will see how mentoring is a process, not a program or a project. It’s a journey that requires great patience, persistence, and perseverance. It also is a relationship that often endures for a long time—even many years—because when the mentor and the mentored engage in a life-to-life exchange, they learn and benefit from one another. In my experience, change in the life of another person almost always is a reflection of changes going on in my own life.
We will see how mentoring involves helping others to discover and pursue their passions, recognize and deal with their pain, and sort out their priorities. And while we are pondering all these Ps, let me suggest another one. In considering the mentoring relationship, several associates and I have debated over what would be the best term to use for the object of the mentor’s attention. Mentoree was one possibility, but it almost sounds like some kind of dessert topping.
Mentee sounded too much like someone with psychological problems. The most commonly used term, protégé, has a condescending sound to it and just isn’t the kind of word that you pack into the average vocabulary.
Therefore, after much discussion, we settled on the word partner. This term seems right because mentoring is not something you do to someone, but with someone. The image we are trying to dispense with is that of the supposed expert or authority who stoops to confer a measure of favor upon a lesser individual.While experiences, expertise, and knowledge may differ greatly between the mentor and partner, the best mentoring relationship results when participants view each other as equals or partners in working toward a common goal: personal growth and achievement.
As I will explain in chapter 1, I first became involved in mentoring in 1979 when a man came alongside me and willingly shared his life with a very troubled and confused young man.About four years later, I began my first halting attempts at mentoring others, experiencing some notable failures before achieving any measure of success. But in almost every case, the approach was that we were equals in the process, fellow participants who were going to learn from each other.
So I like the term mentoring partner.When I mentor someone, I come prepared—and expecting—to learn, not just to teach and advise. As I step into another person’s world and he steps into mine, we begin to see the world afresh, from different perspectives.Neither of us will ever be the same.
Now I invite you to step into my world for awhile so I can show you how I arrived at my conclusions about mentoring and why I believe they can, without any exaggeration, have a profound, lifechanging impact on your life—and on the legacy you one day will leave behind.