3 reasons why mentorship cannot be forced

“Could you be my mentor?”

It is the question I often get as I am getting more gray hair each year.

Recently, I got the same question from a design student I taught last semester. The problem was that I had no recollection of who the student was. 

With the online class and the student in question having video setting off pretty much the entire semester, I didn’t know who the student was, let alone a mentor. I told her that I could not decide right away but suggested a zoom call in the coming weeks.  

I told her to follow up in a few weeks, which she never did.

This recent experience made me reflect on mentorship and why some worked, and some didn’t.  

Here are the difficult but necessary ingredients in outstanding mentorship.

Chemistry absolute must requirement

Years ago, I learned a great definition of chemistry from a friend; indescribable but definite something.

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She describes it as a certain feeling, vibe, etc. when you meet someone special in her romantic relationship.

She also said that this feeling cannot be worked on or expected from everyone you meet.  

Another expression, “I will know it when I see it,” sums up the overall mood of the word, chemistry.

In 2009, I was going through the architecture licensing process after moving from NYC to Toronto. The organization, Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), introduced a mentor who was going to help me with the process of becoming an architect in Ontario.  

I remember our very first phone call.  

I also remember how nervous I was preparing for the phone call. Before the call, I practiced what I was going to say how I was going to ask questions…in other words, I wanted to present myself in the best light possible. 

However, I quickly realized the rehearsed speech was unnecessary once we started talking.  

It was an easy, comfortable conversation like between old friends. We talked about various topics: the architecture profession, new life in Toronto, and also the requirements for the architecture licensure.  

I completely forgot about my rehearsed speech and started to feel relaxed. We began as strangers initially but ended up becoming somewhat of friends at the end.  

Since then, we met several times and shared our architecture lives of ups and downs (OK, mostly downs).

Beginning of this year, we connected over a zoom call and talked about various topics. Our lives during the pandemic time, my mentor’s retirement plan, my interest in doing a joint project with the other architecture firms were such topics.  

The same ‘indescribable something’ chemistry still exists in our conversation as it had been.  

Needs reciprocity

Like all great relationships, mentorship requires the same effort on BOTH sides. Typically, it is expected the mentor gives advice and wisdom, and the mentee receives those insights.

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To some extent, it makes sense to have the separated giving/receiving relationship considering the age gap, professional experience, etc. However, the connection cannot stay one-sided – the mentor gives, the mentee receives– it needs to evolve.

Like the expression, “relationship is like the shark, it has to keep moving to survive,” and the mentorship requires the same movement

Years ago, I had such an experience.  

I had a chance to hire a student from my alma mater, Cornell University, for my work. Truthfully, she made me hire her by being proactive in finding out my work difficulties and describing how she could solve them.  

“Your website needs some work,” she said. 

After the comment, she started what she could do to improve the website, and it was clear she meant a lot rather than some work.

Due to work commitments, I did not have the time or energy to work on the website or even provide frequent feedback on her work. 

With our limited time (my work schedules, her back-to-school date), we decided on weekly meetings to review the website work progress. 

Each meeting, she showcased the progress of the new website and verified some of her questions with me.  

As the weeks’ progress, her questions turn into suggestions. She started giving her marketing advice such as who our target audience is or how the website needs to answer those segments of the audience….

My mentee was becoming my mentor!

Although we started with a mentor/mentee relationship, assuming I would be the one to provide guidance, I realize the connection has been changed.

Our relationship has evolved to something different from what we started with. We ( I should say she) created a successful mentorship opportunity by being proactive in her learning experience.  

Like all great connections, mentorship requires progress, changes, etc. Both sides must work on the relationship to have these essential qualities over time, 

The giving part of the relationship can not be one-sided.

Needs confidence (from both sides)

This one is not easy.  

Communication skill is fundamental in any relationship. Successful communication requires a certain level of openness, vulnerability, and confidence.

I’m not talking about the confidence in chest hitting/screaming; I can do anything ways. I’m talking about the quiet strength kind where one feels comfortable enough to be open and share their stories…good and bad.  

Photo by Marcelo Moreira on Pexels.com

Having the confidence courage to have open, honest, challenging, but invaluable conversations. 

I admit vulnerability thing is not easy. 

In a professional setting – where everyone wants to showcase their best – transparency is nearly impossible.

The tendency to project “things are great” is rampant. However, this tendency does not serve or help forge a great relationship.  

On the other hand, being open and honest in professional relationships takes the connection to a new level. 

Most of the time, I do not expect this kind of a relationship to forge since I have difficulty practicing it myself…

Final Thought

As I get older (hopefully wiser), I recognize certain ingredients in good mentorship.  

Having experience in being both mentors and mentees, there are some aspects to successful mentorships. Some of them require work, some do not, and then there are those questioning to pursue in the first place.  

As I wait for the student to follow up on our journey to mentorship, I wonder where our connection would fall under.  

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