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The Outpost

Mentors
By Theresa Potratz
Published April 19, 2021
Mentors

On the Outpost podcast the group had a lively discussion on mentors. They talked through what a mentor really is. Do you need one? What’s the purpose of having them? 

Dictionary.com defines a mentor as “an experienced or trusted advisor.” Looking at the etymology of the word we see it hailing from Greek Mentōr, the name of the adviser of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. Use-wise it came into use in the 1700s but hit a resurgence of use recently. Usage of the word mentor seems to have peaked in 2018, where it’s stayed at frequent usage. 

This recent rise of mentor usage is interesting especially considering the history of famous mentor-mentee relationships. We have Maya Angelou mentoring Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs coaching Mark Zuckerberg, and Luke Skywalker & Obi-Wan. It’s not like these are recent relationships that spawned everyone looking for their personal mentor.

My Personal Start with Mentorship

Sure, me adding Obiwan and Luke Skywalker seems very tongue in cheek, however, that example offers a lot to people who have never entered into a mentoring relationship. While we might have known about Maya Angelou sharing a close friendship with Oprah, we are likely unaware of what that relationship looked like. 

Knowing what a mentoring relationship looks like helps in understanding when or if you have been included in one. 

Billie Jean Wiebe – The Unexpected Mentor

My first mentor began unexpectedly. In college, I had a professor, Billie Jean Wiebe. We did not have an auspicious start. 

Having participated in a seven play load schedule during my senior year of high school, I packed stage presence. I assumed my Freshman speech course was going to be a breeze. 

Billie Jean had other plans. 

During my speeches, I kept the audience engaged. I got them to laugh at my punch lines, remember the information I hoped to impart, and got them to look forward to my next assignment. 

I got a C in that class. 

In later classes taught by the same instructor and still aching from the low grade I refused to believe I earned, I petulantly refused to give assignments my all and received As and Bs. This contrast frustrated me to no end. 

One day in the student lounge, Billie Jean was sitting on a couch reading. Indignantly, I approached her. She was after all going to teach my capstone class and I really didn’t want to deal with how assignments had been graded up to that point. 

I explained how I viewed the discrepancy between effort versus grade and after 3 years of these experiences asked, “why?” 

Billie Jean never spoke without thinking about the consequences of her words. She’d pause, look at you before you shifted nervously in your seat, then cast her glance upward, measuring each word with a finger over her lips, caging the words in until they were ready. 

“I had hoped we’d get a chance to have this conversation,” She began. “I’ve had similar talks many times in the past with other students. The truth is, I expect more from you.” 

The Effects of Mentorship

Even 15 years later these words hold a substantial impact. During Speech she explained, these abilities came easily. She didn’t see me pushing myself. She saw me relying on previous successes. I wasn’t being judged against my peers. She criticized me by holding me accountable to myself. 

That’s what great mentors do. They work with you to bring out the best in you. 

Battling Impostor Syndrome

I commonly struggle with impostor syndrome. I use stage presence to mask insecurity. 

In a previous post I addressed impostor syndrome in depth. In America, (and likely world wide, but I don’t have access to that number) 70% of people admit to having impostor syndrome. Interestingly, having a mentor is linked to not having impostor syndrome. 

In a study looking at female undergraduate students, researchers found subjects with impostor syndrome were linked to gender stigma consciousness. For women to overcome feelings of inadequacy, other researchers note the importance of mentors and advocates (Sanford et al., 2015).

Now, this line of thought does limit my field of vision to women in particular, but I see no reason why men would not also benefit from mentorship. My previous point only highlights what seems to indicate an additional hurdle women experience, namely stigmas linked to gender. This concept also indicates that we can build support systems that allow us to overcome the barriers impostor syndrome throws at us. 

It seems having a mentor provides an outside view to identify when our feelings of inadequacy are not founded in reality or if they are, having a mentor can help identify ways to compensate and overcome those barriers. 

Forms of Mentorship

Basic mentorship falls into one of two categories: formal or informal. Both forms of mentorship are great and offer value to both the mentee and mentor. 

Formal Mentoring

Commonly, this type of mentoring exists as part of a program within a company or organization. Lots of companies pair junior employees with experienced leaders to serve as mentors. This has an interesting outcome. For members of underrepresented communities, like women or people of color, it’s common for them to struggle to find mentors from the upper echelon of the company to serve as mentors without this formal convention. Typically, leaders from this tier haven’t interacted personally with members of these demographics and as such shy away from organically forming these relationships. 

If you’re used to taking mentees golfing and this new mentee hates the whole sport, taking that mentee on is going to require some modifications to how you approach everything. 

Formal mentorship programs give mentees the experienced leader’s perspective and help navigating the professional environment and it also serves the leader. Leaders who may not have originally seen the strengths of the mentee now learn from their proteges. They develop a greater cultural awareness and broader their ability to learn and understand from people with different viewpoints.  

Programs like these are incredible at fostering greater diversity and inclusion within companies. All employees want to feel a sense of belonging. These programs foster camaraderie and expose everyone to opportunities to understand how others think. Mentoring shows people their company cares about them. 

Informal Mentoring

Chances are if you have someone helping you navigate the world and they aren’t assigned to you through a program, you have found yourself in an informal mentoring relationship. 

Congrats. This has been a bulk of my mentoring experience. 

These relationships tend to form organically. They are wonderful and unstructured and can be just as helpful. 

Effects of Mentorship on Me

Backing up to my first mentor relationship with my professor, Billie Jean, I admit that I was a knuckle-head and we did not have a good start. But that conversation in the student lounge led to the most formative informal mentoring experience of my life. 

It was a transparent and candid relationship. 

Knowing she doggedly determined to hold me accountable to my own capabilities I turned in some of my best work. 

Despite our rocky start, office hours with her became moments of vulnerability and candor where she challenged me to more than rigid standards of academic excellence, she challenged me to be me. 

After College

We kept in contact post college and she’d encourage me to continue pushing myself. 

At the start of this year, I woke up to a text message containing a clip of her eulogy. Her loss only intensifies the impact she had. Her words and encouragement live on in my heart. I cannot express how much she meant to me.

Even still, I hear her in both lectures and private conversations challenging me. 

I will leave you with the greatest piece of advice she gave me, and one that is very apropo of mentorship in general: Be careful of the advice you give. It is most often the advice that you need to hear. 

Unpacking that, she challenged me to listen to what I tell others. Often our subconscious is attempting to help us continue to develop and so listening to the advice we give can allow us to shorten our own learning curve.
Perhaps, listening to our own advice is enough of a reason for us to go out and get a mentee so that we can listen to what we need to hear. Likely, we can also help others as they are looking to become better versions of themselves and just maybe we can leave great enough impressions on the souls of others to generate sincere and positive changes. 

Sanford, A., Ross, E. M., Blake, S. J., & Cambiano, R. L. (2015). Finding Courage and Confirmation: Resisting Impostor Feelings through Relationships with Mentors, Romantic Partners, and Other Women in Leadership. Advancing Women in Leadership, 35, 31–41. Retrieved November 18, 2020