The Pitfalls of Selecting a Mentor Today

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It’s tough these days to find a decent mentor. We live in a period of time here where credibility is based on the perception of capability, rather than the demonstration of it, and where credibility can be manufactured.

With the general populous swayed by social media presence, Wikipedia, and the perceived validation that comes with pro-bono writing for third-party online publications like Forbes, Inc., Huffington Post, etc., it’s easy to confuse what I’m told is called an “Influencer” with an expert – and mistakenly select one of those as a mentor, with fairly disastrous consequences.

You used to have to earn credibility; when I was a young know-nothing, my first mentor was the President of Production for one of the most powerful film studios in the world. Let’s call him “Bob” (which is how I always refer to him, because though he’s 78 now and well retired in Napa, he’d still punch me in the face if I mentioned him by name).

Bob had been working in film and television for almost 40 years by the time I met him. He’d survived mergers, studio collapses, attempted corporate assassinations, and weathered more storms than I’ll ever know. Oh, I’m sure Bob had his slip-ups when he was younger; partied too hard and flirted too much, and wound up in the wrong bed on occasion – but I never knew that Bob. I met him, as his assistant, when he was in his late 50s and had long cemented the perfection of discipline that was to inspire me every day from that day to this.

Bob didn’t screw up. Ever. Under his purview, the studio in question was astoundingly profitable, and from that stepping stone Bob retired gracefully to an emeritus position at a large US studio for a couple of years before his retirement.

Bob was perfect. And he taught me a lot.

He taught me all the things that are left out of a general academic and social education. He taught me business etiquette and psychology. He taught me better manners than I already had – and being from a family where that sort of thing is pretty important, I had pretty spectacular manners to start with. He taught me how to dress, how to speak, how to stand up for myself, and in the boardroom, how to fight (the latter I never really learned; sorry Bob).

I attribute a great deal of my success to what Bob taught me. Of course, it took me two decades to actually learn it all, a course that continued long, long after I had left the employment of that studio. Why? Because I was young and stupid, and, in  many cases, thought I knew better. I had to grow up first.

That’s the way it used to be. Mentoring was something that took place between someone of extensive experience and skill, and a subordinate, as a mechanism for ensuring that the custodianship of the business in question would be passed to capable hands. Back then, my superiors more often than not had been working in the same environments for decades. There was a vested interest in mentoring, because there was a sense of ownership (regardless of whether or not there was actual ownership of the business involved) that came from investing that much time in building something of worth.

Mentoring Today is VERY Different

Pre-Social Media and the Internet, mentoring was done in-person, within the business. But that’s not how it works today. Today, there’s little incentive to mentor within the business, because the senior personnel are rarely there for very long, and are not likely to remain within the business in question for the rest of their professional career.

Our workforce is largely transient. That means they care far less about to whom they hand the reigns. In addition, when it comes to the entrepreneurial set, there often is no hierarchy within which quality mentoring opportunities exist, by the very nature of the business. Entrepreneurs are more often mentored by peers, and that is where the problems start.

Add to that the growing number of “Influencers” with the perception of credibility offering their mentoring services to people across the sphere that they’ve never even met via digital channels, and the effect is compounded. More often than not these days I see the blind leading the blind.

The core problem as I see it is that most people (not all, but most) have a deep-seated need for significance. In fact, it’s one of the six basic human needs. This, combined with the platforms to throw one’s voice that are social media and digital content, has created a slew of self-serving pontificators, laying in wait to misdirect the naive and inexperienced, to fulfill their own need to be heard. I see this all the time. Men and women on soapboxes speaking as experts in areas that they couldn’t even qualify for a job in. Some dude talking about running a successful start up who’s never taken a start up to anything more than a mechanism that temporarily supported him and three buddies before going under (marketed of course as he and his friends deciding to “go in another direction”). You listen to someone like that, and you can be guaranteed failure.

So what can you do?

The first step in selecting a mentor is to be certain that the person in question possesses the skills you want to learn. It doesn’t matter that they’re more experienced or have been doing whatever they’ve been doing longer than you have; what matters is that they exemplify the kind of professional you’d like to be, on some level.

Maybe it’s the relaxed way they engage clients, both internally and externally. Maybe it’s the level of excellence they bring to whatever they do. May it’s the way they effortlessly balance their work/lifetime. Whatever it is, if the person exhibits the behaviour you want to have, then there is an opportunity to learn from them.

Don’t be overly wooed by surface credibility and presence, and make your decision based on those things alone. The best role models, of course, have both, in abundance, but true credibility and presence are not things that can be manufactured. They are earned and developed over time, and you can’t role model someone and gain either by proxy.

This is an area I see younger people today especially having an issue, because via the channels mentioned earlier in this opinion, there do exist mechanisms digitally to manufacture to some extent both of these things – but that is a trap. The “I want it now” sentiment and the fact that perception can be bent via online tools will ultimately result in failure. Just look at the catastrophic fall of Vani Hari, otherwise known as the “Food Babe.”

Rather than take the time to get an education in nutrition, cellular biology, chemistry, or wellness, she used tools to manufacture her credibility online and created herself as an expert in all of those areas, and did so successfully for quite a while. But the fraud caught up to her, and as her fame and reach grew, she came to the attention of those with actual knowledge and credibility and was ripped to shreds. You don’t want a mentor like Vani. You want a mentor with actual knowledge, and the presence and respect that come with it.


Once you have selected a mentor, my final piece of advice is this: know who they are, and their limitations. There is no such thing as the perfect person, and by extension no such thing as the perfect mentor (not even Bob, though he was REALLY close).

Know who you are at your core, and what fundamental values are important to you, and don’t let role modelling or emulation weaken them or take them away. You’re trying to learn some valuable skills from someone who (hopefully) knows a great deal more than you do – you are not trying to become that person and take on their personality. This can be tough.

The allure of someone wiser and more capable that appears to have everything under control can be powerful, and it is easy to slip into emulating more than the professional elements which are components of their success. Whenever I give advice to someone I mentor, I always remind them of the context that my advice comes from. I have certain life experiences that have formed very strong, results-substantiated opinions – but they are my opinions. They are based on my experiences. And occasionally, they will be wrong.

In the end by taking on a mentor you’re trying to cut the learning time from skills and experiences so that you can have the benefit of the education faster. You’re removing the trial-and-error. You’re gaining potentially well-guarded information that will yield an advantage to you. You are not gaining a father, mother, priest, or superhero.

Mentors should have more experience than you, and that experience should be valuable – or there is no point to the relationship. Your job is to choose carefully and learn everything you can while the relationship is still beneficial to both parties. A mentor’s time is valuable. So is yours. Don’t waste it on blow-hards, pontificators, or fakes. None of those are things you want to be anyway…

Photo credit: British Museum via photopin (license).

One thought on “The Pitfalls of Selecting a Mentor Today

  1. I want every young person I know who is looking for a mentor to read this post. You’ve captured perfectly what social networking has done to distort our perception of what success is. The reality is that having a mentor who has had success in the pathway that one is looking to achieve success is vital; pretend success, the ability to TALK about success, means nothing if you’re looking for a knowledgeable guide.

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