Mentorship Is Earned, Not Owed

It's about what you're willing to do, not just about what a potential mentor is able to do.

Mia Hall (right, with me and Zara Green) is a great example of the kind of person who makes mentoring a rewarding experience.

This past Saturday, I had the great pleasure of moderating the final keynote session at the 2013 Blogging While Brown Conference, held in the Langston Hughes Auditorium of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Black Enterprise was proud to be a media sponsor of the event.) Each year, hundreds of bloggers from across the nation are drawn to this event, founded by Gina McCauley, to network and learn best practices of launching, writing, growing and making a successful career and/or business of blogging. I was privileged to share the stage with reigning stars of the space: Necole Kane, Angel Laws, Karen Civil and Claire Siobhan Sulmers (founders of NecoleBitchie.com, ConcreteLoop.com, KarenCivil.com and FashionBombDaily.com, respectively).

During the course of taking questions from the audience, one of the attendees asked how she could get a blogger from the panel to be her mentor. To their credit, all of the successful bloggers on the panel expressed their enthusiastic commitment to mentoring others in their organizations, and graciously offered to be available to her. Of course, as the moderator, I couldn’t just leave it at that. I asked everyone in the audience who needed a mentor to raise their hands; about 60 percent of those present did so. Then I asked how many of them were currently mentoring others. You guessed it: About a third of the hands came down (although a few hands that had not been raised also went up). My point: You will always have a shortage of mentors if too many of those who want one are not committed to also being one. It doesn’t make sense to me how so many of us expect to get what we are not willing to give.

When you ask someone to be a mentor, is your interest in their journey, or their destination? Too many of those who want what mentors have are unwilling to learn what they know or do what they did to get it. The exceptions have no problem attracting mentors; they have the spirit and attitude that inspires others to want to claim them as proteges. Here’s what they know:

You don’t secure mentorship by just asking someone to mentor you, but by studying and emulating, proving and showing yourself to be a true protege. My favorite proteges don’t just pick my brain, look to get hooked up or lust after my swag; they follow my example. They’re just as interested in where I’m from, what I’ve learned, how I think, what I read and who I am as they are in where my help can take them. In fact, one protege in particular had researched my past and studied me long before I knew she existed, even using the organizations and experiences I had in college as a blueprint for her undergraduate activities. She actually had me thinking that becoming a mentor to her was my idea. Her name is Sakina Spruell, and she would eventually become a colleague of mine at Black Enterprise, an accomplished journalist, editor and personal finance expert in her own right, and remains a dear friend to this day.

Mentorship is about what a protege is willing to do, not just about what a mentor is able to do. I’m amazed at how many people see my potential mentorship as a one way street, with all of the benefits coming to them, and all of the giving and sacrificing made by me. It’s all about what they can get, rarely about what they can offer. (How do you know what you can offer that I might find to be of value? See the previous tip. Also, chocolate works.)

On the other hand, I adore my proteges who are constantly thinking of ways to help me to advance my agenda, to make success a common cause, or to simply be thoughtful. (For example, one of my mentees, Mia Hall, just sent me some chocolate brownies with the most wonderful note of appreciation attached!) They understand that the mentor/protege relationship is like any other healthy relationship. It’s about two people allied to be of benefit to one another, not one using the other as a surrogate parent, or worse. You’d be surprised how easy it is for a mentor to feel like nothing but a booty-call (the booty being a job referral, a recommendation, a key introduction or other assistance) to an otherwise absent and unengaged mentee. You’ll have a hard time getting and keeping mentors if the relationship is all about them hooking you up.

Mentorship is not owed. It’s earned. Do successful people have an obligation to mentor? I believe they do. But they don’t have an obligation to mentor you. Everyone gets to choose–with limited time, energy and resources–their proteges, which means you need to see yourself as earning the privilege of being mentored, not getting it just because it would be helpful to you. Those who successfully secure and keep mentor relationships inspire and attract them via their work ethic, integrity, attitude, attentiveness and demonstrated potential (also known as performance), not based on how needy and helpless they are (or worse, a belief that they are somehow entitled). Remember, we get to choose our role models, but we are ultimately chosen by our mentors. It is your job to inspire that choice.

One of the things I consistently require of anyone I choose to mentor is that they be, or at least willing to be, a mentor to others. (How can you be too busy to mentor others, but still expect me to have time for you–like I’ve got nothing else to do?) Here’s my equivalent of hitting the mentoring PowerBall: Sending someone in need of guidance to be mentored by one of my proteges, with full confidence that that my referral will be invested in and valued by both parties, a fruitful relationship will bloom, and everyone in our shared network will be enriched and strengthened as a result.

So the next time you hunger for a mentor to feed your ambition and nourish your possibilities, ask yourself: Who am I feeding? Seek out and pour into worthy proteges just as diligently as you pursue influential, connected mentors to invest in you, and hold both types of relationships in high esteem.

UPDATE: This is incredible. As I was writing this post, Mia Hall, one of the proteges I mentioned above, was also writing a post for her Mia’s Full Court Press blog about me, titled “Pass The Baton!” Hope you enjoy the read as much as I did. Incredible!

Black Enterprise Executive Editor-At-Large Alfred Edmond Jr. is an award-winning business and financial journalist, media executive, entrepreneurship expert,  personal growth/relationships coach, and co-founder of Grown Zone, a multimedia initiative focused on personal growth and healthy decision-making. This blog is dedicated to his thoughts about money, entrepreneurship, leadership and mentorship. Follow him on Twitter at @AlfredEdmondJr.

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  • I’m happy I could invoke such a great post on mentoring with my question. I truly appreciated the panel and all of their insight. I’m a product of mentoring and of being a mentor. I was the one with my hand raised high when you asked who wanted a mentor and who was a mentor. I know the importance of being both. I created a mentoring program while running for Miss VA in college and still mentor. My entire life can be accredited to my relationships both earned and established with mentors. I agree with you, nothing should be expected. But a closed hand can’t give change. Angel Laws is so gracious to extend herself to me. Since our encounter I’ve purchased her book and have informed her I’m not a taker. I respect my mentors time and if the mentoring shoe fits, it shall be worn with pride. I agree with you, mentoring is a two way street. It takes a humble individual to talk to a stranger who is bold enough to ask for a genuine encounter with them. I’ve always believed no one is out of reach, and if given the opportunity I’d ask the same question, the same way. Thanks so much for your post. I hope it enlightens those who are only after the things they can obtain without giving little to nothing in return.

    Appreciate you and your insight.

    Diana Ramsey
    Head Curl in Charge

    • alfrededmondjr

      Diana, thank you so much for responding to this post and identifying yourself as the person who asked for mentorship from the panel I moderated, as I couldn’t remember with certainty who asked the question. Your experiences as both a mentee and as a mentor is a wonderful added perspective to this post! Something tells me that you and Angel will trigger a chain-reaction of amazing blessings that will ripple throughout all of our networks, no matter which side of the mentor/protege relationship we happen to be on at any given time. I appreciate you and your insight as well!

      • It’s nice to converse on the views of a topic that many don’t understand nor care to engage in. I’ll keep in mind chocolate and bow-ties make you smile. Blessings to you and through you. D

        • alfrededmondjr

          “Blessings to you and through you.” I LIKE THAT! Thank you, Diana!

  • SoulFoodTherapy

    Awesome Diana and Edmond! I never really thought of myself as a mentor until you both asked your questions on Saturday. I guess this is because the mentoring I do is not via a formal mentoring program, but just in the way that I communicate with the many students I encounter who are emerging dietitians with many questions for me, and my overwhelming need to provide guidance. I’m glad to know that I’m doing the right thing and that I have earned the right to request someone to do the same for me. Thanks to you both for making me think more on this topic.

    • Awesome Butterfly. Thanks so much for including me in your comment. Truly appreciate the results of mentoring. It helps to create a circle of giving. Keep pushing those who come your way. You are a part of a network of givers. Butterfies Up..:) SWB

    • alfrededmondjr

      Thanks for weighing in and sharing your experiences as a mentor. Like you, I do almost zero mentoring through formal programs, though I do believe them to be of value. I’ve found that my most authentic and fruitful mentor/protegee relationships, no matter which side of the mentorship equation I’m on, take root and develop organically.

    • alfrededmondjr

      I should say that while I don’t do much mentoring through formal programs, I do not want to give the impression that the mentorship I provide is random; there is a method to my particular approach, which has evolved over the years and been enhanced with the advent of social media. For example, I maintain a running list of all of my proteges (most of them are unaware of being on such a list), so that I can do a better job of responding to their needs and checking on them from time to time. Where possible, I create similar lists on my social media platforms, as a way to stay on top of what they’re sharing, and possibly offer a timely congrats, retweet, offer to assist, etc. I also go out of my way to introduce and connect my mentees to each other, with the goal of expanding and uplifting our entire network. In fact, most of my proteges have been as important to me as resources as I have been to them.

  • Arsha (brandbuildsell.com)

    While I don’t mentor in the formal sense of the word, as a web designer and internet marketer, I do believe in sharing what I know and teaching people how to improve their online presence for free. I mentioned this after my session at #BWBNYC when a few young ladies asked how much I charged. They were surprised to hear I don’t. If it’s something simple I can help a person with I’d rather just show them how to do it (themselves) for free. It’s not worth my time or energy to nickel and dime bloggers. We are all in this boat together. I help people, because people have always helped me. Plain and simple.

    • Butterfly Arsha, and that’s mentoring. I think some have always felt an organized program must be established where there is a process for tracking and checking in your mentee and mentor and that’s just not the case. Providing counseling to naturals is mentoring, being available for feedback to those who need it, is mentoring. The reality is you could easily hold the information for yourself and give nothing to those who need it. I’m happy to have met you this weekend because I can say that is not the case in regards to you. Me asking about Mentoring and Alfred Edmonds writing a post about Mentoring scratches an even bigger topic discussion, What Mentoring Is and what it Isn’t. It’s the same as Networking. Many believe it’s giving someone a business card, well good luck with that. If you’ve made no connection or little call of action, your business card is as good as some scratch paper to write down an idea for my website in traffic..:). Butterflies up to you for giving more of yourself to those who need it. Now that’s a good Mentor..:)

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