Shattering the Mentor Mystique

Recently, a grad student brought up this challenge: How do I overcome self-consciousness to cultivate mentoring relationships?

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. It can be very intimidating to ask for professional guidance from an individual you look up to. But one of the reasons why it’s so uncomfortable is we, as a culture, have a very “set” idea as to what characterizes a mentor | mentee relationship.

What do you think of in a mentor? Chances are, what probably comes to mind is someone who has a good 20 more years in the industry than yourself, someone who is far more senior than you. But a mentor can be so many different things. Just as you can respect your friends for many different reasons, there are different types of mentors you can learn from, based off of what attracts you to that individual in the first place. We need to expand how we think about mentors, and stop being so “boxed in” to one conception of what such an individual or networking dynamic can be.

Just as you may admire the “traditional” mentor who is several years ahead of you, you can also think more in terms of a “role model”—an individual who may be closer in age to you, may even be a peer, but someone you still admire.

That said, there are so many different types of role models.  Looking at networking in a broader way makes the whole act so much less elusive. Just as you have friends who meet different needs in your life, your set of mentors | role models may look a lot more like a “board of advisors” than an isolated, singular relationship.

Here are some of the types of individuals you could approach to help you learn and grow professionally:

  • “Position” Person. This individual has your “choice” position. This mentor | role model isn’t strictly characterized by age or experience level (though these concepts obviously play into position). Really, this individual provides more insight into what you would like to make as your life’s work.
  • “Character” Coach. This individual has specific personality traits that you would like to emulate. This person conducts themselves in a manner that you admire, and you can learn a lot from their character, integrity, and demeanor.
  • ”Career” Counselor. Though closely tied to the role model with the “position” you would like to one day achieve, this type of mentor boasts a career path that you admire. Perhaps, this person has swiftly moved her way through the ranks or has deviated in an interesting manner that allowed for professional development she wouldn’t have otherwise on a more traditional route. Either way, you respect the road she’s traveled to get to her professional destination, and you can learn from her experience.
  • “Leadership Style” Scholar. This person is a smart and effective leader, because of the qualities they possess to drive others to perform. These qualities encompass a number of things—including demeanor, how he carries himself—or charisma—her ability to engage and draw others in.
  • “Communication Style” Superior. You may have thought, “Wow. I wish I could think on my feet like that. I wish words would come to me like that,” when you envision this top-notch communicator role model. This individual has the type of oratorical skills you would like to emulate—skills that get results. Being around and learning from this individual can assist you in becoming more confident and well-spoken.
  • “Life Balance” Leader. This person has mastered the elusive monster that is work-life balance. How do they do it? Why don’t you get to know them better and find out!


Just as there are many different types of professionals to seek out, there are many different ways to do this. It doesn’t have to be the oh-so-intimidating meet-up. It can be something as simple as striking up a conversation at an event or meeting that you didn’t intend to initiate.

Sometimes, you don’t even need person-to-person contact, let alone a “sit-down.” Just keep your eyes and ears open. Observe how those people who inspire you carry themselves—how they interact and communicate with others. Now, that’s not to say you need to be someone that you’re not. Their style also has to work for you. Just keep in mind that you can learn a lot by just watching—and it doesn’t require getting out of your comfort zone to do so.

Once you shatter these preconceived notions about what it takes to be a mentor, or what’s required to network, then you can see a lot more possibilities—and rich opportunities that you may have missed otherwise.

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