Finding Mentors and Kindred Spirits
© 2023 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, July/August issue, 2023
A few months ago, I hit a momentous milestone in my career. More than three decades after starting work as a writer and consultant, I finally got my very first, bona fide mentor.
Not that I haven’t had help along the way. I’ve gotten invaluable assistance from people who’ve made introductions, opened doors, and offered all kinds of input and support. But I’ve never had someone take a longer-term interest in teaching, guiding, and supporting my efforts to grow in my career. So, how did I manage to find a mentor, after all this time? The same way I found all the other people who’ve helped me: by seeking and nurturing connections with kindred spirits.
In truth, it’s challenging to find mentors of any kind, by which I mean people who are: a) further along the particular path you want to pursue, b) willing to invest the time and effort to help you, and c) in a position to have real impact on your growth and career, in terms of knowledge and/or connections. That is, of course, why WAI created its Mentor Connect program.
I also don’t bother with the recent semantic fuss over “mentors’ versus “sponsors.” Sounds good if you’re trying to sell books and talks, but people who call themselves “mentors” have provided all kinds of assistance to grateful mentees over the centuries without worrying about the particular tasks or limits of that word or role.
The point isn’t the title. The point is to find people who are willing and able to invest in helping you, in whatever way they can. Some people can open doors. I wouldn’t have gotten my job at Flying magazine, for example, if it weren’t for my friend Pat Luebke, who knew the editor and suggested that he talk to me. Others may not have those connections, but can still have valuable wisdom, subject knowledge, and/or perspective to offer. I’ve lost track of the times someone older and wiser has given me editing advice or gently suggested that I not send an email, or rephrase a piece of writing, because they saw potential problems I was too inexperienced to recognize. I still shudder to think of all the landmines I might have stepped on if I hadn’t had them to advise me.
Regardless of the type of help, however, one fact remains true: mentors have to have more than the ability to help you. They also have to want to act on your behalf. So it’s worth asking, if you’re in the market for a mentor: What motivates a person to want to help someone following behind them on the road of life?
The most common answer I hear is, “people want to give back.” That’s often true, but even then, there are literally thousands of women a mentor could choose to give back to. Why should he or she pick you? Just because you have ambitions or things you want help achieving, that doesn’t necessarily inspire someone to invest their time, knowledge, or connection capital with you. Those are your priorities. Not theirs.
What inspires people to want to invest effort to help someone, outside of a formal volunteer network like WAI’s Mentor Connection? In my experience, it’s usually a personal connection of some kind. The primary motivation of every single person who’s ever helped me was a valued and trusted relationship—either with me, or with someone else who’d asked them to step in. We go out of our way for people we care about, believe in, or have a reason to want to help.
What does that mean, in terms of finding a mentor? Three things. First, understand that relationships with mentors often emerge and grow over time. It’s like planting a garden. So focus on seeking and building genuine relationships with kindred spirits; people whose ways of thinking, priorities, visions, or personalities feel aligned with yours. And do it because you value your connection with those people; not just because they might be useful to you. Mentors can smell transactional relationship-seekers a mile away, and nothing is more of a turn-off.
Pat Luebke and I were friends for seven years before she made that key introduction to Flying’s editor. And I planted the seeds for my current mentor’s help more than a decade ago. We were seated next to each other at a luncheon and hit it off. I had no idea he was such a successful consultant; I just liked his ideas and thinking. I suggested we talk more over coffee, and we ended up chatting every few weeks. Life then took us in different directions, but last fall, I got back in touch. Turns out the work I’m doing now is related to work he’d done for over 30 years. Several conversations later, he said, “I think what you’re doing is important, and I’d be happy to help you, if you’re interested.”
Second, make yourself worthy of a mentor’s assistance. Mentors are much more inclined to help people who are serious, dedicated, and working hard to advance their own knowledge and skills. Pat only made that introduction after I’d built solid aviation writing credentials and had bought my Grumman Cheetah. That made me a candidate worth recommending. And it was only after I’d spent time learning the philosophy behind my current mentor’s approach, and was able to say to him, “I understand this part, but here’s the piece I’m missing…” that he offered his assistance.
That specificity is actually the third mentor-attracting element. If you meet someone you think might make a good mentor, do enough research and work to be specific about what expertise or help they might be able to provide. Don’t just ask them to be a mentor. Demonstrate that you understand what makes them special, or uniquely positioned to contribute to a specific project or vision. All the better if it’s also aligned with work they’re already doing or committed to.
Bottom line: The fact that you want or need help isn’t a reason for anyone else to give it to you. You also can’t know in advance who might end up offering career-changing assistance, or what that support might turn out to be. So instead of looking specifically for a mentor, look for kindred spirits, and then invest in those relationships. And if you come across someone you think could help you, figure out a specific request that both limits what you’re asking for and demonstrates that you see something unique and kindred in them that makes their input valuable. And then work to make yourself worthy of that support. Give back in energy, dedication, gratitude, and commitment to being the kind of person who cares about and contributes value to the lives of those who befriend or invest in you. Plant and tend your garden with consideration and care, and you might be surprised by all the flowers that end up blooming there.