In human relationships, there is nothing new under the sun, including the bond of mentorship. Mentors and their mentees or proteges have continually formed the core of advanced education and training throughout history.
Aristotle and Alexander the Great
You do not have to be a history geek to find the names Aristotle and Alexander the Great familiar. However, you may need to be bit more of a geek to know that these two represent one of the most famous mentor-protege couples. As such, the two can provide us with a good example of how a mentorship works and how both parties benefit. Historically, it has been common for the mentor to handpick his protege for a specific reason, such as the mentor’s desire to influence future generations or an extraordinary set of talents exhibited by the student. Aristotle was very interested in influencing the Greek Empire’s next ruler. However, Aristotle did not just come up to the Emperor Philip (Alexander’s father) out of the blue, offering to be Junior’s teacher and guide. Aristotle had already established tight connection with the royal court through his father’s position as the Emperor’s physician. Continuing in the medical legacy of the family, Aristotle had already gained a solid credibility of a worthy mentor, fit for the next king.
How does this relate to me?
Obviously, not all mentorship relationships are aimed at raising future emperors and timeless philosophers. Yet, there is a lot of wisdom we can derive for our present situation. First, we have seen that mentors are not a paid-per-hour type of educational laborer, and that they have a lot to say about whom they chose to mentor. This applies equally in today’s professional world. Some workplace newbies found themselves under the guiding and protecting wings of a mentor-like colleague, without realizing that their attitude of self-improvement and professional demeanor attracted the mentor's attention in the first place. However, many mentees engage in active search for a fitting mentor. A good place to begin is by approaching the mentor-to-be with a specific question. In return, you can offer to invite them for a lunch or a cup of coffee. Prepare yourself well for the meeting, so that you do not come across as simply wasting their precious time. Let them know that you appreciate their time and that you have high respect for their opinions. If you ask for advice on a specific issue, make sure you follow up with the resolution. Finally, settle the issue of mentorship by openly asking whether it would be acceptable for you to seek their professional counsel and guidance in the future. Keep in mind that not all mentor-protegee relationships are forged in the workplace. You can also forge mutually beneficial relationships in the classroom and through alumni groups and professional associations. For example, if you are studying for your Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination in preparation to become a CPA, you might check out your state's CPA society, as many of them have formal programs to connect new professionals with volunteer mentors.
Do we have a match?
A mentor does not necessarily need to be someone with the same specialty, gender, or background. Mentorship does not even assume that the mentor should occupy a superior position to the mentee. Consider our historical duo; the court’s physician and philosopher does not seem to have much in common with the future emperor and warrior, and the royal son was obviously further up the hierarchy than his teacher. Yet Aristotle’s credibility ensured that Alexander would treat his mentor with respect, which allowed for a learning environment. We have just tapped into an important aspect of mentorship: credibility. The mentor’s credibility is crucially important. While most of us do not require the credentials of a world-renowned biologist and philosopher, we should always ensure that our mentor matches our needs and goals. Simply put, a mentor needs to be someone whom you can learn from, whom you can respect, and whom you will consider an authority.
How did Alexander the Great benefit?
How did the warrior emperor benefit from the physician-philosopher? Quite a bit! The art of logical argumentation helped Alexander persuade and influence political powers; the study of history helped Alexander gain superior tactical knowledge; and the awareness of human nature helped Alexander practice self-control and overcome base impulses, which brought down many an empire before. Mastering skills and knowledge at first seemingly unrelated to his emperor-ship, Alexander gained crucial advantage points over his fellow peers and earned his title “the Great.” Similarly, a mentor should help us foster skills and knowledge that will make us stand out from the crowd.
How did Aristotle benefit?
Ultimately, it was in Aristotle’s interest to ensure the continuing might and power of the Greek Empire. On a more personal level, Aristotle’s ability to spark curiosity in biology in his protege ensured that, along with political conquests, Alexander never forgot to supply his mentor with intellectual resources and study materials. Similarly, we need to look for a mentor, who will have our success in his or her interest. Often, older colleagues or company leaders will take a promising newbie under their wings to nurture the next generation of leadership for their organization. At other times, an office frontrunner may like to mold a new manager to ensure good and effective future office-management relationships. And similarly, we also want to make sure that as mentees we do not only take, but that we are indeed ready to give back, even if only by a simple thank you and feedback on our progress.