The other day I was talking with someone about mentoring. It was an interesting and lively discussion. The question came up on how to get a mentor. Upon hearing the question, I had to pause as I recalled a similar conversation I had on this very topic ten years ago, and I answered the question the same way I did ten years ago.

If you have to go up to someone and ask him or her to be your mentor, then you’re doing something wrong. It’s my contention that you don’t pick your mentor the mentor picks you. There are over 28,000 books on mentoring and numerous articles in business journals, “white papers,” and conference presentations on the topic of mentoring. However, the two I found the most insightful and useful were Marilyn Moats Kennedy’s book Office Politics Seizing Power Wielding Clout, and Kathy E. Kram’s; Mentoring at Work Developing Relationships in Organizational Life. In Kennedy’s, book Chapter 7, The Politics of Mentoring – or Searching for the Wizard of Oz she describes a process not many people think about when it comes to mentoring.

She posits that a person shouldn’t have just one but a number of mentors each with their own specialty. She points out there are five kinds of mentors (information mentor, peer mentor, retiree mentor, competitive mentor, godfather mentor) in an organization, and I concur with her analysis.

I would also; point out that for the individual who is trying to develop the traditional type of mentor/mentee relationship should be prepared to work at this for at least 18 months.

I understand that what I just wrote may see far fetch because there so much has been written about companies such as IBM, Xerox, Proctor & Gamble’s the large consulting firms and others how they have mentoring programs for new hires.

While these firms have well established mentoring programs there are many others that don’t and have no idea on how to go about putting such a program in place. Consider what Herminia Ibarra a Harvard Business School professor wrote in her March 2000 HBR article; Making Partner: A Mentor’s Guide to the Psychological Journey;

“The protégés spoke first, enumerating the long list of characteristics their idea mentor would possess. This person would be wise, successful, wield power in the firm, have extraordinary technical prowess, care about and have time for them, be nice persona and manage their own life such that work wasn’t everything. As the list unfolded, the faces of the assigned mentors showed increasing alarm. When the mentors first spoke, their words: “That is precisely our fear – that you have expectations we could never possibly meet. We don’t know how to do this job.””

Believe it or not, people have to be trained on how to be a mentor. But, those that understand how to do this do it well and don’t waste time on just anyone. There has to be certain chemistry between the mentor and mentee. The mentor is aware of those individuals who have potential to become rising stars and they will approach them at the appropriate time.

That’s why if you have to ask, maybe just maybe you’re doing something wrong.

© Timothy A. Wilson 2012. All Rights Reserved