Are There Mentors Sitting in those Church Chairs?

By Ray Wheeler, DMin. Finding a mentor challenges most emerging leaders – the emergence of the Millennials in leadership brings the subject of mentors to the fore in a fresh way. It is not that Millennials don’t have mentors; in fact according to demographic researchers Millennials maintain some of the healthiest relationships to their parents and older leaders of any current generation. In fact relationship is one the significant differentiators of the millennial generation.

This focus on relationship gives a particular boost to finding mentors. Mentors offer significant insight, encouragement and discipline to a leader’s development. Like other generations before them Millennials experience development patterns impacted by both career stage and life stage. This insight is important because the patterns of development scholars observe in leaders can be used to predict developmental boundaries in skill and personality in leaders. This means that finding the right mentor for the context in which the emerging leader works is not only desirable it is also a foundation for accelerated career development.

How Does a Mentor Help?

So just how does a mentor help one’s career development? Talking about career development in the past was often done as though it stood in isolation from the rest of life. People talked about their careers and people talked about their personal lives – the two very rarely came together. For the emerging generation however the mood appears to be significantly different. According to the Pew research center Millennials are significantly more concerned with being good parents than they are having a successful career. It isn’t that the need for having a good career and good pay escapes the emerging generation of Millennials. Instead (according to LifeWay research) the millennial generation sees a career and its pay as a way to facilitate the real goal of time with family and friends. Mentors then can help in two ways.

First they provide important life lessons. The term “mentor” includes a variety of activities that help people develop. Activities such as discipline/accountability, role modeling, acceptance/confirmation, counseling, friendship, or serving as a spiritual guide all focus on helping people develop in their personal lives. These activities answer such questions as, “who am I?” “What is my potential?” “How do I fully develop my potential?” “How can I make a difference?” “Where do I fit in?” “How do I best approach this challenge or opportunity?” “How can I survive this set back or tragedy?” “How do I develop healthy relationships (especially with the opposite gender)?” Successfully negotiating marriage, career and parenthood is easier when a person has input from those who have been down this road ahead of them. But remember, personal life and career are nearly inseparable. How do mentors help with career?

Second mentors provide coaching i.e., insight about the work place (how to survive caustic leaders, political intrigue or downsizing in harsh economic times). Mentors train in applied knowledge or skills needed to excel in the work place. Mentors also sponsor emerging leaders giving them exposure to the “higher ups.” This exposure often opens doors of advancement. Mentors can also protect their protégés from organizational intrigue or infighting that they are not yet prepared to face. Mentors provide exposure and visibility giving a chance for a person’s true abilities/potential to be seen by key decision makers. Mentors help shape leadership skills and perceptions by giving their protégés challenging assignments that develop and showcase a protégé’s knowledge, skill and ability.

There are Mentors in Those Church Chairs

Ok, so mentors are really helpful in life and at work. Where does a person look for mentors? Mentors are found everywhere. One great place to find mentors is by looking at the people who sit in church chairs every week. Why look there? Highly effective leaders have among other things a clear understanding of their spirituality and with it a larger sense of personal mission and moral foundation. These are the kinds of leaders who build enduring greatness through what Jim Collins called a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. Additionally these leaders also demonstrate stability and vibrancy in their marriages and personal relationships. It is not hard to understand why. The greatest single challenge of any leader who has significant organizational responsibility is how to establish and maintain strong and healthy interpersonal relationships.

I found one mentor in a Chamber of Commerce meeting. He gave a presentation on how he changed the hospital he lead as CEO from loosing money to being one of the top 100 acute care facilities in the United States. I found another mentor in a chance meeting at Starbucks. We were standing in line next to each other and just started talking. I found another mentor on LinkedIn she looked like an interesting person so I asked for an introduction. Mentors are everywhere. If you keep your eyes open for people who exhibit the skill, ability, connections, integrity and moral fortitude needed for sustained success you have found a potential mentor. The formula for finding mentors then is pretty simple. Look for someone you would like to hang out with and ask them for a meeting or an introduction. In my experience I am turned down eight out of ten times for some very good reasons. I still ask and I still have some great mentors.

Great leaders are busy. Hence the biggest objection I face when asking someone for an introduction or asking for a meeting is that their schedules are already full. This brings up another aspect about mentoring that is important. I already described the fact that mentors provide different kinds of input (i.e., some coach men, others train me or protect me in organizational settings, provide challenging assignments, or give me exposure to new people, or act as a role model, or act as a friend I confide in or a spiritual guide or even a divine contact). The variety of input suggests different kinds of time commitments.

Roy was one of my mentors until he suddenly died in a plane crash. I met him in college and he was influential in my life for the next 25 years. In my early career Roy served as a coach, sponsor, disciplinarian, counselor and divine contact. I never spent more than thirty minutes with him in any one meeting and we only met one or two times a year. In my later career Roy became a friend, in addition to a sponsor etc. He recruited me to work for him directly in an international context. In that context we met every week for an hour. Sometimes we met for breakfast. I cherish those times and the impact they had on my own development as a leader. Another mentor, Jerry and I met only one time and that for a dinner meeting. However, the insight Jerry gave me still lasts today some 30 years after that evening over steak!

Set Clear Expectations for Mentoring

Here is the point, ask for the time the mentor can afford. Don’t expect the mentor to fulfill every mentoring need. It isn’t hard for experienced leaders to read someone who will drain their energy and time with little return because of their imbalanced expectations. If leaders consistently turn you down when you ask to be mentored then (1) check your time expectations and (2) review what you are asking for.

I had a student ask if I could meet with them routinely every week. They wanted me to be their primary counselor about the crises in their family and personal life. I had to tell them no. If they were willing to meet every six months and talk about how to develop their interpersonal skills in conversation and problem solving I would say, “Yes”. Why? Because my schedule is already full on the one hand and on the other hand there are much more qualified mentors when it comes to the type of personal problems this young man was facing – I simply would not serve him well.

What happens if a mentor wants to meet with you? Take advantage of the opportunity. If a mentor sees potential in you by all means agree to meet and learn as much as you can.

Mentoring Relationships Grow through Stages

Mentoring relationships possess a lifecycle. A good mentoring relationship typically includes the following stages:

1. Attraction: a mutual respect or recognition of potential in another’s skills or abilities. This usually occurs in a period of six months to a year when the relationship becomes important to both participants. All mentoring begins with some degree of attraction to be effective. If no element of attraction exists then the relationship simply won’t develop.

2. Initiation: approaching a mentor or mentee with a plan for development or a request for assistance. Mentoring relationships may span a period of 3 months to 5 years (depending on the depth of empowerment provided). Successful initiation of relationship provides both individuals benefit in the mentoring relationship.

3. Cultivation: the relationship is defined in functional terms. Both individuals continue to benefit from the relationship. Opportunities for more frequent and meaningful interaction increases. At this point emotional bonds (loyalty, respect etc.) and intimacy (the degree of disclosure and openness) increase.

a. Responsiveness: determines whether reciprocity (give and take) exists in the relationship.

b. Accountability: determines whether follow-through on insight and training will occur. This definition must be mutual even if the empowerment is defined from a mentor who imposes a development plan aimed at improving productivity or building some character quality or insight.

4. Empowerment: outcomes in the mentoring process are defined. The full impact of the mentoring process becomes evident. The mentor may develop a reputation as an effective mentor or effective trainer or desirable sponsor. The Mentee experiences greater effectiveness and gathers respect by association with the mentor but also by virtue of his or her growing effectiveness and productivity. Empowerment may be evidenced in as short a period as several weeks (as with skill development inherent in coaching and teaching functions) or may take months or years to become fully evident (as with sponsorship functions).

5. Separation: may be a deliberate strategy for moving the mentoring relationship from an active to an occasional to a passive role or an involuntary event that significantly alters the structural role of the relationship. It may also be initiated in the emotional experience of the relationship for example the Mentee may no longer want guidance but the opportunity to work autonomously. The mentor must demonstrate the emotional intelligence and the awareness of the developmental level of his or her Mentee to respond positively to this change in the relationship.

6. Redefinition: an indefinite period after the separation phase when the relationship ends or assumes a significantly different character. Separation strategy is built on the development level evidenced in the behavior of the Mentee(s) as response is made in the mentoring relationship. It simply recognizes that the mentoring relationship is dynamic not static.

Not All Mentors are Living

I have assumed so far that mentoring is an active relationship between a mentor and a mentee. However, mentoring that occurs for example by watching a role model may have little or no active interaction between the mentor and mentee. A role model may be a passive form of mentoring. One of my favorite mentors is Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States. No, we don’t talk. However, I read over his correspondence during the civil with his generals. These letters are a gold mine of leadership concepts and modeling that I have used successfully in a variety of situations. One of my mentors calls this kind of mentoring historical mentoring.

Look for Mentors – Be a Mentor

It is not hard to find mentors although it does take persistence at times. Finding mentors makes a significant difference in the quality of life and quality of work-life a person will experience. People who have mentors tend to experience faster rates of advancement and greater resilience in life. What I hope to demonstrate in this short article is that finding mentors is simply a matter of looking and asking. On the other hand I hope to remind experienced leaders that they have a lot to offer through mentoring others.

I like the values around family and friends that the millennial generation seems to possess. I like the desire Millennials express to make a difference in life. I look for mentees I can invest in who will in turn invest in their future. What drives me to make this investment? I think it is the sheer joy of watching people discover life changing insights and develop career changing skills. It is also the satisfaction of watching emerging leaders become better leaders – many of them will surpass me. Are there mentors in those church chairs? Yes, many like me are actively looking for emerging leaders to influence because we never lost the desire to make a difference in our world. It is pretty exciting to find an emerging generation that hold to the same hope. Have you found the mentors you need? Are you looking? How is mentoring working for you? Let me know, I want to hear your story.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.