Finding a Mentor #3: It’s All a Question of Style

In which I discover what qualifications I want my mentor to have

Over the past couple of months, I have been writing about lessons in career mentorship that I’ve learned over my decade and a half of studying and teaching martial arts. In my first post, I discussed how you first need to know what your goals, your strengths, and your weaknesses are. In a second post, I discussed why identifying complementary mentors are important.

In this post, I want to cover why identifying the style of your mentor is important.

Case in point: I was trying to learn a high back fall shortly before my first degree black belt test. I had a six-inch foam crash pad at my disposal, which theoretically would make it easier to fail. My mentor at the time had been trying to teach me this technique, and I had been taking terrible falls for over fifteen minutes. Another black belt walked by and told me I simply needed to jump more.

“Wait!” the latter exclaimed. “I have an idea.” She went into the equipment room and returned with a solid rod the length of her arm. “Okay,” she said. “I’m going to swing really hard, and I want you to jump as high as you can and throw yourself backward.”

Terrified of the potential for pain, I jumped really high when she told me to, allowing the stick to pass underneath me. I took an incredibly awkward high fall, but she praised me for my effort, fixed my body alignment, then had me try again until I succeeded.

Stories like these remind me that one has to be very careful about choosing who they have as their mentor. It really becomes a question of style, because everyone learns in a different way. It boils down to being cognizant of your own learning style and the teaching style of your mentor. The following is a brief list of what I think is important when you’re evaluating to see whether or not a mentor is a good fit.

Tip #1: Your mentor must have a perspective you want.

If you’re trying to learn about marketing strategies, it probably doesn’t make sense to go to a VP of IT unless they have some significant experience under their belt. Experience matters when it comes to teaching. Conversely, people who don’t have a job title may surprise you as to what expertise they may have under their belt. That software engineer over there might have years of project management experience in a different context. The individual contributor you talk to at lunch may have had years of people management experience. The person you talk to in the lunch line may have years of mentorship and teaching experience to share. Look around you for hidden skill sets; they will expand and diversify your mentor pool and may give you exactly the perspective you need.

Sometimes the person who has the job title you want may have gotten there via a different route or might not have enough time in the position to give you more than a vague sense of what it takes to get there. This might be a positive or a negative; someone with limited experience in the role may be able to have a fresher perspective on what struggles they’re experiencing in a transition and be able to give you a better feel for what you might be able to expect. Someone who came to the role in a non-traditional way may have a different perspective on what skill set you really need for a position. But, at the same time, these people may not have the broader perspective that someone with more experience might be able to give you.

Tip #2: You must be able to understand your mentor when he/she speaks.

As an instructor, I find myself explaining techniques to people in three or four different ways. A basic forward roll may require five different explanations before someone begins to understand the concept. Sometimes, with more complex techniques, I may need to explain things about a dozen different ways (and sometimes bring in another instructor) before something makes sense to the student.

At times, I’ll see the following situation: an instructor teaches a single technique to a student. When the latter doesn’t understand it, the instructor explains it again, perhaps this time with a slight variation, but essentially in the same way. Though the explanation may be technically correct, it’s possible for the student to walk way from the class without any change in his or her understanding of the technique.

This really comes down to a question of communication style; you will resonate with a certain manner of communication more than others. If possible, find a mentor who shares your style of communication in order to make it easier to apply their wisdom and advice into your life.

Tip #3: You must be able to handle the type of feedback your mentor provides.

One student related to me recently that a certain black belt had given him a ridiculously long list of things to work on. Each one was on point, but when he asked what he should start with, the answer was: “Anything.”

After sharing a laugh, I suggested to him that this particular black belt had a very perceptive eye, but had what I called a “fire hose” mentality: getting advice from this person was like drinking from a fire hose. You would get excellent advice, but you had to be prepared to get that flood of information and break it down yourself.

On the flip side, I’ve worked with mentors who have simply put me through exercises, and when I asked how I was doing, simply gave me the vague feedback: “You’re going in the right direction.”

Hopefully, your prospective mentor is somewhere along the spectrum. But this is another stylistic issue: does your mentor go from concept to details, or throw all the details up into the air and have you address them one by one? Which would you prefer?

Some might refer to the Jungian personality model (or the more pragmatic Myers-Briggs Personality Test) and suggest that this is really an issue with matching on the intuitive-sensing (deductive vs. inductive thinking, or big concept vs. themes from details) spectrum. If so, it’s perfectly possible that you will want to match your style of learning with a mentor who teaches in that style.

Personally, I have learned to muddle through the multitude of details, even though things make more sense to me if they are hung in a framework of concepts that I can understand. I’ve learned the coping skill of simply copying the entire list down, sorting them into concepts I can work on, and finding people to help me with these particular issues at my own pace.

Mentorship style is important when you consider the efficiency of learning. By selecting a mentor carefully, you increase your ability to proces information and, hopefully, to grow. (And, since you’re working on growing your career, there are no sticks involved.) But I also challenge you to try meeting with people you might not have otherwise considered for a mentor; I’ve been privileged to participate in a few surprising mentorship relationships that would not have occurred had I not kept an open mind and tried something outside my comfort zone.

More in this series:

Sword II” courtesy Marian B. Licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons 2.0.

Elaine is an engineer at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainefinnell. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

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