Making the Most of Mentors


My mentors ranged from the white male marketing director upper management told he must mentor me, to a white female research director, to a black male research VP, to two white male plant managers, to an Indian male accountant and his white male manager, to a white female sales VP, to a black male human resource director, to a Chinese woman research manager, to a black man in the mail room, to a white woman on the corporation’s executive committee, to a black female director at corporate headquarters. I even received mentoring from the man in the mail room -- trust me when I tell you that he knew a little bit about a lot of things -- not to mention, a known sexual harasser who had been warned to steer clear of me or else...


Our relationships developed for a variety of reasons:

  • because upper management matched us;
  • because we realized that we were interdependent;
  • because we needed allies in other departments and functions;
  • because we learned during diversity training that we shared commonalities across race and gender;
  • because I was trying to understand the cost structure of my products and, unlike many of my marketing peers whose eyes glazed over when looking at cost sheets, was actually interested in what the accountants were teaching me;
  • because I was trying to reduce my product costs so spent extra time at the manufacturing plant.

I learned different things from different people. I didn’t expect to learn everything from anyone. Apparently this approach works. I didn’t learn until years later how unusual it was to have so many mentors.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mandatory match was the only pairing that didn’t work out -- we never figured out what we had in common and the relationship always felt forced.

Recently mentoring expert Dr. Richard Caruso, president of Uncommon Individual Foundation, spoke to participants in the Organizational Dynamics program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Caruso believes that the traditional mentoring model, in which a protegee (sometimes called a mentee) is assigned to a mentor and the mentor leads the relationship, often doesn’t succeed.

He favors the “open-system” mentoring model, in which a person connects with many mentors, as I did

Check out Dr. Caruso's virtual mentoring community --his Mentorsphere -- where mentors and proteges can find each other.

What’s in it for mentors?

Mentors become invigorated by the protege’s passion for a topic that interests and is important to the mentor -- and because the protege has something to offer or teach them, too. 

My positive history with mentors set the stage for the rest of my life. Today, I seek help and support from a wide cross section of individuals in many areas, offering my own expertise in exchange for others’ wisdom.

We all need each other, particularly during difficult times. Especially if you’re facing challenges, resist the urge to withdraw into yourself because you are overwhelmed, embarrassed or ashamed. Reach out to others who can help and support you. As you do so, remember that no matter your level, employment status or life situation, you have things to offer others -- so be clear about what they are. That way, the relationship will be beneficial to everyone.