Mentors, Formal vs. Informal

by John on September 13, 2010

I was having a really bad year. I had transitioned to a new role. My wife was also looking for a new job and we had a toddler. We were trying to save for a house, living with my in-laws and just really struggling. (Insert witty quote about best of times/worst of times and inferno here, just to hear Dickens and Alighieri spin in grave)

I also had a pretty long commute to work so it gave me plenty of time to reflect on my screw-ups, my victories, and life in general. I thought I had an epiphany when I came up with the brilliant idea of going out and getting a mentor. So I took initiative, and asked. Two weeks later, I got new job closer to home and that was the end of that deal.

Fast forward about a year. New house (albeit 780 feet from my in-laws), my wife is kicking ass in her new role and the baby is, well she’s growing and life is better. At my new gig, there was a formal mentor program that I just fell short of the requirements; I was however granted an exemption and finally got me a mentor. I was excited beyond belief and ready to really make the most out of this relationship. What did I do? Yes, absolutely nothing.

My mentor was a good guy, smart, successful and funny. I was also his second chance mentee. It was a match doomed for mediocrity.

The whole experience got me thinking. Did I really need a formal mentor? My answer was no. I think formal programs are great for people who need a kick in the ass or want a structure. I’m not wired in that fashion. Embracing ambiguity? Check! Opinionated? Check! Do I know what I want to do 5 years from now? Still working on that one.

So now I have “informal” mentors. While this is not a radical concept it works for me. Really it’s just me asking questions and really listening to the answers. When I boiled it down to why this works for me its how my recruiter brain is wired.

So here are my tips on how to get you an informal mentor:

1. Look around at the people you work with or interact with on a daily basis.
2. Build some rapport, engage them in conversations, and ask questions. Share accordingly.
3. Listen to their answers. Listen to their insight.
4. Choose to act or not act on what you’ve heard.
5. Remember that you’re not limited to only one person or group.
6. If you treat your informal mentors like therapists, you’re doing it wrong. (That’s what your mental health co-pay is for people!)

Through the course of my conversations, I feel empowered and energized. I’ve asked tough questions and received very candid responses. It’s up to me to decide what to do with the insights and advice given. And you know what? I’ve stopped this dysfunctional “vision quest” to find the perfect mentor and have in turn gained multiple ones instead.

What do you have to lose? Absolutely nothing! And the gains? Well, the gains are immeasurable.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: