The Value of Mentors


Several stories regarding the origins of the word mentor exist. The two most common have elements familiar to many people:

1. In Greek mythology, when Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War, he entrusted his son Telemachus to his friend and adviser, Mentor. In looking after Telemachus in Odysseus's absence, Mentor's duties required that he be a role model, a father figure, an adviser, a guardian, a counselor, and an encourager; in other words, a mentor.

2. In 1689, the French writer Francois Fenelon was appointed royal tutor to Louis XIV's grandson, the Duke of Burgundy. In 1699, Fenelon wrote his most famous work, Les Adventures de Telemaque, which was both a continuation of the story of The Odyssey and a thinly veiled attack on the absolutism of Louis XIV. Using Les Adventures de Telemaque, with its main character named Mentor, as a primary text, Fenelon "mentored" his young pupil to grow up to become a just and fair ruler, unlike his grandfather.

A third tale regarding the origins of the word, perhaps more farfetched, is certainly intriguing:

3. "La Grotte de Niaux is a prehistoric cave located high in the Pyrenees in southern France. After walking through silent and womb-like stillness, a visitor emerges into a large, domed space filled with paintings estimated to have been created somewhere between 12,000 and 9,000 bc. While most of the paintings depict horses and bison, there is one theme that is repeated in many places. These paintings show a group of men taking children to what, at that time, was considered the edge or end of their physical world. The men exhort the children to be brave and expand their reach beyond the borders of the present world. Some believe that the origin of the term 'mentor' comes from what has been loosely translated in these ancient depictions as 'men' taking children on a 'tour.'"[1]

Regardless of the origins of the term, the concept of having a mentor to aid in successful career development has widespread acceptance. Professionals of all ages can benefit from the guidance of a more experienced, and often older, colleague who can provide advice, contacts, and encouragement throughout a career's progression. The way mentors are identified, utilized, and generally viewed, however, can certainly differ from person to person, from culture to culture, and from generation to generation.

Sherry is explicit in her use of the term mentor and in her view of the mentor-protege relationship. She speaks often and reverently of her mentor, illustrates how she actively looks for opportunities to mentor her younger colleagues, and encourages young professionals to seek out a colleague or another professional to serve as a mentor.

Mark, on the other hand, is far more reticent about the term mentor and its implied relationship. In the early stages of his career, he had no one whom he called his mentor, nor had he ever actively sought one out. Yet he also realizes that, while he may not typically use the term or view the mentor-protege relationship in the same manner Sherry perceives it, he has benefited a great deal throughout his career from friends and other professionals around him who have played this guiding role.

Sherry: Identifying Your Mentor

Mentors appear in our lives in various guises and at various times. In some cases, these nurturing relationships are literally lifelong. For example, I learned so much from my loving, disciplined, and congenial parents, who always insisted that I work hard and do my best. In other cases, mentoring may be limited to a particular period or the duration of a project. Some of us are particularly blessed (and this has been true for me) so that mentors seem to be a built-in part of our lives. The relationship may have evolved with no conscious effort on our part, and we may not realize how much we rely on this person's wise counsel, willingness to serve as a sounding board, and the lessons shared from his or her own career. Others consciously seek out mentors and deliberately tap into their expertise and guidance.

Whatever the case for you, having at least one mentor is critical to professional growth and development. Each of us needs a relationship with a respected, experienced colleague to help us spot pitfalls and encourage us to take on new challenges. A mentor is a person who believes in your talents and skills, who offers suggestions to strengthen them, and who has a way of helping you transform obstacles into opportunities. Your mentor must be someone with integrity, whose professional accomplishments and personal traits you admire and wish to emulate. Look around. Who fits that description for you? How can you become better acquainted with a potential mentor?

In a 2002 commencement speech at Dartmouth College, television icon Mr. Rogers asked the graduates some fundamental questions:

Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person that you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from college, anyone who has been able to sustain good work, has had at least one person and often many who have believed in him or her. We just don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.

He then told the graduates he was giving them an invisible gift—"a silent moment to think about those who helped you become who are you today." We should accept Mr. Rogers's gift—not just at graduation but frequently throughout our lives.

The following are a few examples from my own life—although I still expect that I will find myself mentored by new people in the years ahead. Already there are two professors at the School of International Service (SIS) at American University who are generous with their time and suggestions now that I am once again teaching. Our need for encouragement, new perspectives, and wise counsel never goes away, no matter what our age or career stage.

Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we realize we have been mentored by someone and that we view that person as a significant role model. To illustrate, I point to Vi Wellik, who owned and operated the Flying E Ranch for many years. My parents first took me to vacation at the Flying E, a guest ranch in Wickenburg, Arizona, in 1964. Friends and I still spend a week there each March. During these memorable ranch visits, each night at dinner Vi would ask new guests to say a few words about themselves and bid farewell to those guests who were departing the next day. I was relatively young as I first watched her and admired her extraordinary ability to make each person feel special and connected to the ranch. It was only about fifteen years ago as I was hosting a National Council for International Visitors (NCIV) dinner at my home that I realized I had been modeling myself after Vi for years. At that dinner, like many others, we followed a tradition referred to as "The Circle." Early during any party that I host in my professional role, I invite my guests to form a circle. After I offer a few words of welcome, each person identifies himself or herself and states his or her connection to the group. This tradition has enabled my friends and associates to make unforeseen connections and never fails to enrich the evening's conversations.

Fortunately, I realized what a powerful role model Vi had been for me and was able to thank her, both in person and in writing, before she died in 2004. To be able to observe, learn from, and acknowledge a mentor's contribution to your own life is enormously rewarding.

My primary professional mentor was Dr. William C. Olson. Bill died in 2012, and I was privileged to give a eulogy at both memorial services that celebrated his remarkable life. I first met Bill in the late 1970s when he became the dean of SIS, my undergraduate alma mater. Early on he recognized the need to establish an alumni association for SIS, and I was one of the alumni he recruited to help. Ultimately, I became the founding president of the association. In the process of working together, my relationship with Bill evolved in amazing ways.

I cannot remember exactly when I first referred to Bill as my mentor, but we explicitly recognized our mentor-protégé relationship for decades. In fact, Bill was a quintessential mentor to me—always encouraging me to stretch and grow, always providing significant opportunities to do so. He would pose questions that prompted and shaped my aspirations. One day he asked, "Would you like to be a member of the Cosmos Club?" Thanks to Bill's efforts in shepherding my nomination through the admissions committee, I was elected to membership in this revered Washington institution in 1991 and have enjoyed the benefits of membership ever since.

Bill invited me to teach a course at SIS as an adjunct professor. That led to my pioneering the first course on public diplomacy ever given at SIS. I taught that course throughout the 1980s—and learned an immense amount in the process. Although increased professional travel precluded my continuing to teach in the 1990s, that experience gave me invaluable background to return to the classroom after I stepped down as president of NCIV in 2011. In a fundamental way, Bill is responsible for my first "encore career" choice.

Another time, Bill said, "I'm putting out a new edition of my book. Would you like to have a chapter in it?" This allowed me to add another publication to my resume, while broadening my experience and exposure. Some years later, he queried, "What boards would you like to be on?" My first choice was the World Learning board, because participating in an Experiment in International Living program (EIL)—a World Learning program—had changed my life. Thanks in large part to Bill's support, I was elected to that board in 1999 and served in that capacity for twelve years. Serving on World Learning committees remains one of my favorite volunteer activities.

Over the years Bill served as a reference, made editorial suggestions for publications I wrote, and closely followed and encouraged me in my career. (He even donated to NCIV and read our newsletter, often commenting to me on various articles.) I asked him for advice on topics ranging from personnel problems to evaluating major professional opportunities. Always, I knew that I could count on his thoughtful analysis, broad knowledge, and carefully considered counsel. What an extraordinary gift!

In April 2007, the School of International Service presented me with their Alumna of the Year Award at a wonderful event held at the German Embassy in Washington. The venue was perfect because my first EIL program had included an extended homestay in Bad Godesberg, Germany. Of all the words of congratulations offered that night, it was Bill Olson's tribute that meant the most to me. This was because he knew every dimension of my career—and had helped me through the inevitable rough spots.

There was no way I could ever repay Bill. The only alternative is to do what many other professionals feel obligated to do—pay it forward. It was Bill's marvelous example and generosity that prompted me to invite Mark to coauthor this book. During our collaboration, Mark has learned much from me, and I have learned an enormous amount from him as well. The best mentoring relationships result when reciprocity is present—both parties are innately curious and want to learn from each other's unique vantage point.

Mentors are a valuable source of guidance and continuity. Over time, almost every career inevitably involves immense changes— sometimes sought after, and other times sudden and unexpected. The stability a good mentor provides is invaluable during these times of transition. Usually, mentoring relationships evolve from shared interests or participation in a project, much as my relationship with Bill grew out of our efforts to establish an alumni association. Sometimes, though, individuals actively seek out mentors. You should not be shy about asking someone to be your mentor. At a minimum, you will be paying a compliment to an admired associate. When your request meets with an affirmative response, you will have gained valuable help in making informed career choices.

When asking someone to serve as your mentor, be sure to explain your expectations and leave your prospective mentor with a graceful way to decline, in case he or she feels unable to meet those expectations. You might ask, "Would you be willing to have coffee with me once a month? I'm in the midst of making a career change, and I want to make carefully considered decisions. I realize that you have a busy schedule and might not be able to do this right now, but I want you to know how much I would appreciate your advice at this point in my career. If you're willing, I'll be pleased to buy the cappuccino."

Serving as a Mentor

Having been blessed with remarkable mentors and role models, I make an effort to be an active mentor to younger colleagues. I heartily concur with Larry Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University, when he told us that the best way to pay back those who have mentored you is to "continue the tradition." At this stage in my career, it is a great joy to share some of the lessons I have learned the hard way and to encourage and enable my colleagues to pursue their professional development.

In fact, I consider being a mentor to others a professional imperative. At NCIV, whenever I attended events of any kind, I always asked if I could bring a guest. Then I made it a point to take a young person with me. I believe one of the reasons NCIV attracted such outstanding interns is that we had a reputation for getting them out of the office and being truly committed to their professional development. For example, when I was invited to speak at the Foreign Service Institute, I immediately asked permission to bring our summer intern as an observer. Not only did she have the chance to visit the campus of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center and witness a training session, but we also had time on the way there and when returning to talk about her tasks at NCIV, her career aspirations, and broader issues. All of us who are lucky enough to hold senior positions have an obligation to nurture and help develop the next generation.

  • [1] From the October 22, 2004, issue of The Mentor News (available at
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