By William W. Taylor, Abigail J. Lynch, Nancy J. Léonard
This post is the preface to a newly released book, Future of Fisheries: Perspectives for Emerging Professionals (AFS Press), reproduced with permission of the publisher.
On Becoming a Mentor and Why Mentoring Is Important
In this fast-paced world of hectic schedules, impending deadlines, and increasingly long to-do lists, why would anyone want to take the time and effort to be a mentor? Mentoring is a significant time commitment, and it means using the resources and networks that a mentor has accumulated with years of experience to benefit a mentee, hopefully improving his or her life and professional experiences. Mentors are excellent resources to help identify strengths and interests and can offer a clear look into one’s chosen field, sharing in both triumphs and failures. A more philosophical view of mentoring can be described as a way to pay it forward and give back to the broader community in an attempt to improve the chances for others to succeed. Mentoring ultimately provides an environment where mentors act as a safety net, encouraging their mentees to take risks and learn from their mistakes, allowing for a better professional and individual. Regardless of how each individual defines mentoring, the product of the relationship is a synergy that empowers people to be or do something they did not recognize on their own.
We all know that a successful career takes work and development of needed skill sets (we are not born into a profession or a position), and to excel, we need someone to make a personal investment in us and provide critical feedback on our performance. Mentors provide that safe space to discover more about who you are and who or what you might be and to help identify how to get to where you want to go. This safe space encourages honesty without incrimination or destructive feedback and provides a confidential and valued source of guidance. Creation of a safe space also promotes an environment where mentors and mentees can forgive each other for mistakes (and perceived mistakes) that will be made as they travel through this unpredictable journey we call life!
Mentors see a unique spark in mentees and are willing to take the time and have the ability to be able to uncover and develop their qualities and potential. In order to do this, mentors are often at a point in their career where they have experienced personal and professional successes and failures and are willing to share those experiences. It is these personal experiences and life lessons that shape and guide their mentoring.
What Makes a Good Mentor?
In the simplest terms, mentors possess the qualities of good role models and have traits worth emulating. In particular, they are trustworthy, honest, approachable, and available; possess a vision for the future; and exhibit a great deal of compassion. Mentoring is a one-on-one process that is based on common experiences, mutual trust, and respect. Mentors generally are further along in their careers than their mentees and may have accrued extensive social and political capital through their substantial personal and professional networks, which they willingly provide to their mentee to engage and learn from. Mentoring is, consequently, an active process that blends a mentor’s past experiences and wisdom to influence the development of another individual who is an eager recipient of this feedback. Effective mentors are able to turn their mentees’ missteps into opportunities on which to reflect and learn. Mentors should be willing to speak the truth as they see it because they care and are invested in mentees’ personal and professional growth. There are many types of mentors who can serve different roles and bring varying strengths to the development of the same mentee.
With a network of mentors, you can surround yourself with people who can support and stimulate you, as well as provide for alternative solutions and additional milestones to achieve on the pathway to future success and happiness. Your mentors can serve as a sounding board; offer career advice and growth opportunities; provide objective, frank feedback and guidance; facilitate connections; empower; and help craft a road map to success. Mentors have a keen ability to uncover your potential and personal assets and challenge you to pursue actions to push you gently beyond your current abilities to discover new strengths. Mentors often provide a safe haven for you to take risks but do not necessarily prevent the bumps and bruises along the way.
Forming a mentor–mentee relationship must be a mutual process, and it takes initiative and time on the parts of both the mentor and the mentee. Both need to be open to share and receive information honestly and with respect, a two-way communication flow. Do not assume a mentor possesses all of the knowledge; mentees also bring their own knowledge and experience. The relationship grows when the mentor begins to see that the mentee is listening and demonstrating that he or she hears and appreciates the conversation and that feedback is given with compassion. This feedback loop reaffirms the mentor–mentee relationship and encourages continued investments. Any mentor can give praise, but it is the critical reflection and feedback that promotes individual and professional growth. Mentoring is not about lecturing the content or materials and taking notes. Instead, a mentee needs to be able to blend the mentor’s advice and incorporate it into his or her own style—one cannot learn to swim by just reading a book, but one cannot swim without learning the techniques of how to swim either. In some cases, mentoring is done through stories or metaphors to symbolize broader aspects of life. These allegories can only be incorporated and internalized if you can understand them and can see the connection to your life situation.
Trust and respect are the cornerstones of a productive mentor–mentee relationship, but both take time and personal interaction to develop. If the mentoring relationship lacks respect, one will not risk telling the truth. Mentees need to feel like they will be accepted no matter what they share or whether they succeed or fail. Mentees should know that their mentor believes in them and will help them when they are in trouble; otherwise, mentees may be reluctant to take risks and expand their abilities. A mentee also must feel heard, as he or she is exploring how to troubleshoot and identify options to solve problems. Even if the solutions do not work as hoped, if a good mentor will believe in the mentee’s ability to overcome the problem and together, the mentor and mentee can generate solutions that do work.
If you want to push the frontiers of knowledge and your own abilities, you are going to need to take some risks. And if you are willing to push the envelope and take some risks, you will likely experience some failures along the way. A fatal mistake some mentors fall victim to is their intentional or unintentional eagerness to solve the mentee’s problem for him or her or to take responsibility for his or her mentee’s failure or mistake. Confident mentors allow mentees to take responsibility for their own mistakes and fix them themselves, providing guidance along the way as requested. During this process, mentors should be inquisitive and ask probing, thoughtful questions to lead the mentee through the decision-making model.
A mentor should be a guide rather than a dictator. A mentor can suggest several possible paths, but the final decision should be made by the mentee. Otherwise, mentees learn how to follow directions but never learn how to be leaders in their own right and are, instead, always dependent on their mentors to make decisions. Mentees should remember to be open to learning from mistakes, clean up what they can, and move forward. Failure is not fatal; failure to keep trying, however, is.
So, what can you do to get the most out of your mentoring experience? It is up to you to take the initiative, challenge the status quo, and develop and nurture your mentor–mentee relationship(s). The vast majority of successful people will credit their mentors with helping them find their way, believing in them, and empowering them to take risks and make a difference. Often the significance of the advice or lessons learned does not resonate until months or years later. Along the way, express gratitude by recognizing and thanking your mentors. A good mentor is like a good dog, always there for you and proud to be so! We encourage everyone, no matter what age and experience, to actively seek future mentoring opportunities. You and the profession will be better for it!
Future of Fisheries: Perspectives for Emerging Professionals
This book serves as a medium for distinguished mentors to share their personal and professional lessons learned, as well as their insight on key concepts that influenced their career trajectory and the profession. More than 70 relatively short, philosophical, mentoring vignettes can be found within the pages of this book. They are broken into six sections:
- The academic environment
- Traits to nurture
- Diversity to appreciate
- Skills to develop
- Leadership in practice
- Emerging topics
In all vignettes, the authors identify challenges they faced and share their guidance on how to remain resilient in the face of similar challenges. In some instances, the vignettes are coauthored by a mentor and his or her mentee(s); in others, the vignette focuses on the mentor’s perspective only. We encourage you to read and reread this book throughout your career as some messages will inspire immediate “Aha!” moments while other vignettes may better resonate with you at some point in the future. It is our hope that this book inspires and empowers the emerging professional and also serves as a source of inspiration for the more seasoned of us to recognize that mentoring indeed is important and that our efforts have made a difference in helping others succeed.
We believe that if you have a desire to read this book, you possess an innate desire to move the needle forward, build capacity within yourself, help strengthen others and our profession as a whole, and make a positive impact. Go forth and do great things! Fish On!