A Mentor is Not Necessarily Someone Older Than You

Mentor may not be older than you

One key to achieving business or career success is to trust and accept guidance from someone who has ventured on a similar journey as you. This is why mentorship must never be ignored or underrated

When it comes to mentorship, studies have found that:

  • 80% of learning takes place between mentors and mentees
  • 75% of private sector executives say mentoring has been critical in their career trajectory
  • 79% of millennials believe mentorship programs are crucial to career success

So effective are regular and in-depth meetings between mentors and mentees that 71% of Fortune 500 companies such as Google, General Electric, and Intel have formal mentorship programs for career development.

But what about less explicit forms of mentorship, more informal relationships that still provide guidance for future success? The value of these informal mentorships shouldn’t be underestimated. When an individual, whether they are in a higher position than you or simply someone who has gained wisdom through their unique experiences, has a genuine desire to help you in your career, you may already be interacting with a mentor and not even realise it.

Pay attention to these interactions and you’ll be in a position to harness the pearls of wisdom your unofficial mentor is offering you. Part of being successful is being able to recognise value and then apply it to your career. 

Here’s what to look for to know if someone may already be mentoring you in some way, even if you aren’t in a formal mentor-mentee relationship. Remember, a mentor is not necessarily someone who is older than you.

1. The Advice They Give

Good mentors can be judged based on the advice they give. How relevant is it to your situation? Does it take into account what you’ve mentioned you’d like to achieve or opportunities you consider as valuable? Is it relevant to your experiences?

Often, informal mentor-mentee relationships are less direct with advice, but these interactions usually include a genuine interest in you as a person and what you do. A good way to tell if an informal mentorship is one of positive gain is if your informal mentor is also an active listener—if he or she is then the likelihood of getting good advice is higher since they’re putting you and your needs at the core of the conversation.

2. Their Attitude Towards You

In a study done by the University of the West of Scotland, it was revealed that having a positive attitude is just as important as experience and the ability to give feedback when it comes to mentorship. If your relationship with a person already involves encouragement, guidance, and drawing from personal experience, then it’s possible that you’re already in an informal mentorship.

Your informal relationship with a possible mentor can go beyond if and when their positive attitude leads to them championing you for particular opportunities and positions they know you’d be interested in and excel at.

3. An “Open-Door” Policy

Having an open-door policy when it comes to giving another person guidance or advice tells them that they are welcome and you’re willing to help. This creates a more positive feel or vibe in terms of informal mentorship, making communication easier. Katherine Power, Co-founder of Clique Media, shares this view saying that she turns to her friends who are also co-founders for advice and mentorship. “I don’t have a traditional mentor-mentee relationship, per se. Frankly, I think of many of my friends as mentors, as so many of them are either entrepreneurs themselves or are just killing it in their careers.”

She also credits this open-door policy as one that informs her own relationships with her employees. When those in a higher position—particularly those in positions of leadership—maintain an open-door policy, it allows potential mentees to approach them for sound boarding, updates, and more informal queries that can result in valuable pieces of knowledge. 

If someone you’re looking to approach for career or business advice or guidance leaves their door open for you and makes you feel welcome, that person could turn out to be the mentor you’ve been looking for.

4. Asking Insightful Questions

Even if it’s informal, a way to know if you’re already being mentored and guided in some way is analysing the questions you’re being asked. Asking good questions, is part of what being a great mentor is all about.

It might not be direct but insightful questions include topics around:

  • Your definition of success
  • Your plans
  • The obstacles you’re facing
  • Your options

Of course, these important questions are all about helping your story unfold the right way. When an informal mentor-mentee relationship is progressing, these questions will unfold organically, over time, and in a conversational manner.

The presence of these specific questions tells mentees that a potential mentor is interested in knowing more about their professional goals and personality. So, if someone is able to give you great advice patterned after these key questions, you might already be in an informal mentorship even if the both of you doesn’t realise it yet.

5. Changing the Context

Informal mentorship thrives in a new and casual context. It’s a chance to communicate more fluidly and candidly than in a more structured and formal teacher-student relationship.

For a potential mentor, it’s a chance to gain a more in-depth and accurate picture of who the mentee really is. And for the potential mentee, changing up the context to one that matches the informality of the relationship makes the entire thing seem less stressful and demanding.

An informal mentorship setting mirrors the informality of the relationship. It calls for a more honest exchange between both mentor and mentee. This could result in better, more useful advice since the former has a chance to know the latter better.

In her book, Common Sense Workplace Mentoring: A Do-It-Yourself Systemauthor Susan Degrandpre says that “Feedback…that is unstructured, on a real-time basis, comes from all directions…and is two-way.”

Regardless of whether a mentor-mentee relationship occurs informally, formally or as part of a greater, company-wide initiative, it’s important to find the right fit at all points. It’s also a good idea to branch out and seek advice from more than one individual, male and female.

Recognising that you’re already in an informal mentorship is important as it also paves the way for you to learn what to look for in a good mentor.  You could even become a mentor, thanks to the things you’ve learned from the people who have mentored you along the way, formally or informally.

Speaking of effective mentorship, it’s wise to join a community which puts a premium on helping each other gain more success. At Behind Closed Doors, we help women support other women towards more professional success. Through our mentorship, professional development, networking and events, we guide women to become better versions of themselves in their business or careers and help them do the same for other women. If you want to know more about what we do and how we can help you, please don’t hesitate to contact us today.


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