Mentor, Mentor on the Wall
by Peter Kaufman

You’ve got a college degree, maybe even an MBA. But where do you get solid, inside knowledge from experienced people in your industry?

If you feel queasy about helping Jane, the hotshot MBA know-it-all that your agency just hired, then help someone in Sweden. Or in Oregon. The point is, you're probably carrying around a tremendous amount of industry knowledge that could really help someone.

On the other hand, if you're just starting out, you have a million questions, and you'd like some answers. Contacting some industry people would help you in your job search, help you avoid some pitfalls, and give you some inside information about companies and agencies around the world.

I was delighted when this message struck a nerve in the United States and around the world. In addition to several requests for mentors from India, I heard from Sweden, the UK, France and many in Canada.

This is a request I received before getting to work that first morning:

I am a young marketing professional who has been exclusively in the Internet arena since leaving college. I have worked for a large ad network and am currently an Internet Marketing Strategist for a web development firm. I am seeking a mentor not only for career advice but for knowledge as well.” P.P., India

Here’s another observation from a person who has been “mentored”:

When I am at school the only people I have to talk to are my teachers. Considering I have the same teachers throughout my three year program the advice is limited. I so desperately want to talk to people who are currently in the ad industry and get advice from them. Someone I could talk to openly and know they are not going to lie to me or steer me the wrong direction for fear I might become something more than them or take their job away,” said Raquel Staple, copywriting intern.

As a young copywriter I only want help and to get sought after advice on questions and concerns which affect my career decisions and myself. The bottom line is when I make it I will never forget who helped me. The way I look at it is like this, the person who doubts being a mentor was once young and starting out, they didn't know what to do next or where to go. To that person, I say remember back when you first started in your career, and if only one person helped you remember how that made you feel. What goes around comes around.”

At the end of the first day, I received 47 requests from people searching for mentors. Requests keep trickling in every day. The flip side is that only four people wrote to me to serve as mentors. I went to my community of professionals on www.stickyideas.com, the creativity web site that I started last year, and asked several of the 3,000 email subscribers for help. They came to the rescue and there are currently about 50 mentor relationships in place around the world.

Searching through the emails, a few trends became obvious:

There is a need for informal learning that can only come from a non-threatening one-on-one relationship. Mentoring a young professional 2,000 miles away can be an easier sell than helping someone in your own organization. Why are people uncomfortable mentoring within their own organizations?

With cutbacks and downsizing, jobs are precious. Mentoring a younger person, especially one who could eventually overtake your position, is threatening. Mentoring, whether or not we want to admit it exposes our own flaws and challenges. Many people won't risk placing themselves in that vulnerable position in their personal workplace,” offered Peggy Murrah, owner and founder of Webmarketcoach.com.

My personal experiences as a mentor are exhilarating. To work side by side with someone, watching him or her stretch themselves and focus on what they really want is a shot of adrenaline. My protégé's achievements are vicariously my own. They gain the fame and glory for their successes, and you can rest assured that my smile is as broad as anyone's.

Younger people don’t know where to go for help or how to ask for it. It’s the age-old problem of not knowing what you don’t know. By providing a safe, no-question-is-too-stupid forum, people are free to ask questions, challenge ideas and get honest feedback with no hidden agendas.

The big takeaway from this article and meeting so many people is this, “No matter how smart your degree says you are, people need human contact to feel secure about their role in the workplace.” If they can’t find it at their own office, a mentoring program is a great place to start.


Peter Kaufman is a Creative Strategist and Copywriter for Whitlockebs in Richmond, Virginia, a company that moves business on the web for more than 100 clients in healthcare, banking, consumer products, and a wide range of industries. Peter is a also a licensed creativity coach with Before & After Inc., a creative training company that uses The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy™ and FlashFlood Brainstorming™ to generate creativity at companies and agencies around the world. Before & After has trained more than 50,000 people at companies like McDonald's, ABC Sports, J. Walter Thompson, and Hewlett-Packard. Check out www.before-after.com. He is also the Owner and Head Writer of www.stickyideas.com, an online resource for creativity. He can be reached at peter@stickyideas.com or (804) 564-6614.

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Copyright 2001 by Peter Kaufman. All rights reserved.

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