The prevailing wisdom goes like this: mentors matter. Perhaps more than any other force in your career, mentors/champions/sponsors accelerate you. Sheryl Sandberg had Larry Summers, Susan Rice had Barack Obama, Kevin Spacey had Jack Lemmon (fun fact!). The examples are plentiful.
Over the past few years, I've gained a better understanding of different types of mentorship. I also recently ignored the advice of a mentor, despite a tremendous and abiding respect for him as a leader. This inspired a lot of guilt and second guessing. Through the process, I realized that mentors are people too -- sometimes biased and always under pressure to deliver, even as they are committed to your growth. I also concluded it's important to have many mentors, not just one. Mentors can be as diverse as the characteristics you want to cultivate. Analytical Skills? Empathy? Decisiveness? Find a mentor for each!
Here are the different types of mentors you can seek in your organization:
1. The Decision Maker -- Somehow this person synthesizes diverse pieces of information quickly and makes a bold call. A call that channels resources to one or two specific goals. (S)he then usually asks you to take a giant piece of that initiative and run with it. Generally it is good practice to say YES to this person and hide your terror for later. Learn how (s)he makes big decisions with limited data, that's an invaluable skill.
2. The Politico -- Well-known and regarded throughout the organization. Connects you with exactly the right person you need at the right time. Makes people around him/her feel valued. Makes no one EVER feel small, dumb, or insignificant. This person will put you in the right meetings to present your work. (S)he will also win you instant credibility when you mention her/his name -- a halo effect that's incredibly powerful and should be exercised with care.
3. The Statistician -- A whiz with numbers, makes sense out of data. Helps you understand rigor, how to really drive insights. Make him/her teach you a little of this skill set. Even if you will never run regressions in R or query databases with SQL, you should understand enough to allocate resources, set timelines, and separate the signal from the noise. A basic understanding also means you'll never be hoodwinked by a clever analyst.
4. The Shrink -- This is the very rare senior person in an organization you could cry in front of. Someone who won't hold it against you. The Shrink will listen and sympathize with you, but (s)he is not your parent. (S)he will deal tough love when you need it. Think Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos.
5. The Truth Teller -- This is someone who will demystify the inner workings of your organization. How are promotions really decided? What happens when employees get an offer from a competitor? How hard can I negotiate for more equity? This is likely not your direct manager, but someone one step removed from your chain of command who can be completely transparent. (S)he will not be involved in those negotiations with you, but (s)he wants to see you get the best deal possible.
And now for my recent experience around parting with a mentor's advice.
Mentors are just people, and people can be risk averse. If your mentor sees you excel in one context, (s)he will likely continue to push you in that context. Especially if (s)he needs you to deliver in that context for the organization to shine. Let me be more specific. I love data and analytics. But I need to hone my skills in strategy, cross-functional management, and negotiation. A mentor I admire deeply offered me a position leading all analytical work for major clients, and I knew this work would be tremendously valued. But I felt my learning curve had plateaued, so I took a different path.
This is something we don't talk about enough, how to synthesize advice from a trusted mentor and push back if you need to. "Trust your gut" sounds hollow, but it's true. The first time I broke with a mentor's advice, it made me nauseated. Truly. A storm of self-doubt. I am hopeful the second time will be easier. At the end of the day, mentorship should be a relationship of mutual respect. As we mentees become more self-aware and decisive, our mentor-mentee relationships may become even richer.