Building Your Tribe: The Many Faces of Mentorship

A multi-mentor approach can accelerate professional growth. Here are the types of people you should be looking to surround yourself with as you develop in your career.

When people ask me about my favorite mentor, I usually refer to a colleague I worked with at a French television station more than 7 years ago. We were assigned to create a TV show together, and developed a strong rapport.

While in my mind he was unquestionably the Christian Dior (established genius) to my Yves Saint-Laurent (protégé), to this day my former colleague may have no idea I see him as a mentor. Over the years, he’s helped me with my career, advised me on how to navigate the politics of the media industry, and written a letter of recommendation to the U.S. government for my work visa. But we’ve never used the M-word.

Now that I work in tech, mentorship is less of something I’ve fallen into, and more an intentional aspect of my professional life. I’m being asked what kind of mentor I want, what I look to get out of mentorship, what mentorship means to me. I’m going to presentations for women in UX about how “relationships catalyze growth” and talking to colleagues about what they get out of mentorship. I’m suddenly surrounded by people who are actively looking for opportunities to mentor others. They’re signing up for mentorship programs in their droves. There’s no excuse to go unmentored.

As a career-switcher, I am especially aware of how important it is to find a professional ally. What I’ve come to see as potentially even more powerful than having a single mentor, though, is the idea of building a tribe - what one of my mentors calls your “board of directors”. Mentorship can come in many different shapes and sizes, and that sometimes what an aspiring designer, developer or copywriter needs is multiple perspectives.

I’ve been thinking about all the areas where I want and need to grow, and then solicited input from a variety of advisors on how to navigate that course. It can be a very informal process, over coffee and cupcakes, or the occasional Google hangout. The net result is a sort of mentorship jigsaw puzzle, with every piece working together to make me feel mentored, even if it’s by a suite of advisors instead of just one.

I’ve identified some of the kinds of people who are adding value in this way. Can you find parallels in your own life? If not, it might be time to seek some out.

  • The Cheerleader - This is someone who believes unequivocally in your potential. You can always rely on them to big up your smarts and resourcefulness. While they may not know much about your industry, they know you through and through, and will remind you of past hurdles you’ve overcome to inspire you to keep going. (Yes, this can be your mom.)
  • The Industry Veteran - This advisor has worked in your field for decades, and seen the trends, the fads, the failures. They are well-placed to guide you to your next career lilypad because they have a pulse on the future of the industry. They’ll share anecdotes about their own work experience from which you can draw lessons.
  • The Maven - This is an intelligent, accomplished professional working in your domain whom you aspire to be one day. They are ideal dispensers of tactical advice and critique. They are #goals.
  • The Networker - Having a highly-connected person in your team of advisors can be advantageous since they’ll introduce you to others in the field and help you grow your circle.
  • The Foil - This person shares your values and motivations to do excellent work, but they go about it in a very different way. Your strengths, and weaknesses, are polarized. You have a relationship based on mutual admiration but you challenge each other to figure out why you think the way you do - and to get better at it.
  • The Empathizer - This ally is someone who gets where you are in life, because they’ve been somewhere similar. They are uniquely positioned to help you navigate near-term challenges since they’ve trodden the same path in recent history. They’re great at giving emotional support.

If you’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon that one dedicated mentor who fulfills all your needs, then kudos to you. But if that hasn’t happened, be proactive in building your tribe. Take a look at the people around you as well as the organizations in your field offering mentorship opportunities. If you think strategically about encircling yourself with the right set of advisors, you can customize a cushion of support.

Not only that: you can also be part of someone else’s cushion, even if you don’t have years of experience on your side. Being a cheerleader or an empathizer isn’t predicated on how long you’ve been in the industry. While I’m not going to take on the mentor mantle right now, there’s no reason I can't actively try to bolster someone else on their journey. In other words, we can all be one of the many faces of mentorship.

Becky Radnaev

Becky is a User Experience Designer who found her way from Wales, UK, to our office in Boulder, CO. She loves telling human-centered stories and appreciating the hidden design in everything.

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