Is Mentoring Overrated?

have never formally had a mentor. I don’t even know if that’s true, but I don’t recall ever entering into a formal relationship with a person and agreeing to be mentored by them. Yet, I have been helped along my personal and professional journeys by several people whom I will consider my mentors; some were academic mentors who guided me during my time in school and spoke positive words at the right times; others were professional mentors who helped a confused young chap on his way up the proverbial corporate ladder. Whether or not I entered into a contract with these people, I am hugely indebted to them for the person I have become.

have also had several young people (many of whom were older than I am, in fact) reach out to me asking to be mentored. For some reason, I have always felt uneasy about that, partly because I believe it’s a really important thing to request another person’s input in your life directions, and partly because I have hardly seen any of these people commit to the mentoring relationship beyond a few Facebook messages or emails. But I also know that if I had to estimate the number the people whom I have supported personally, academically and professionally, at least since I enrolled in university 15 years ago, I will struggle to find an accurate estimation.

Conversation with school students visiting the Nigerian consulate in New York. July 2012.

My point is this: I have both been mentored by many people and I have mentored many people, often without exactly naming it mentoring. The formal and informal relationships which I have cultivated with people along my journey are the reasons I have advanced as much as I have in the period of time that I have been professionally active. I crave a good conversation any day with a person whom I believe to be interested in or concerned about my growth. I know it when a person genuinely asks me about a project that I am working on and gives me advice on how to move it forward; I appreciate it when a person deliberately paves the way for me to earn recognition for work that we are jointly doing when they could easily pull rank over me; I admire it when a person commits of their limited time and resources to give me solicited and unsolicited advice. At times, it has been as simple as earning invitation into their homes and offices; at other times, it has been a much-needed referral to a member of their network, or simply a word of encouragement in a season when I desperately need it. In all these forms and more, I have been the beneficiary of some good mentoring.

And so in my daily life, I seek to do the same for as many people as I encounter: an appropriate word here, and some project support there; an occasional arm around the shoulder, and concrete advice when the time calls for it; at times I have invited people to collaborate with me on projects, and at other times I have committed some funds to help them along their journeys. So, no, I don’t think mentoring is overrated, I just think that we might miss out on the many forms in which good mentors beautify our lives when we hold on to idealistic views of what mentors could be. You do not need a person to sign a contract with you to sit together for two hours monthly evaluating your life ambitions, if you could simply walk into their office when the occasion demands and have them hold the door open for you. In every mentoring relationship, you must surely be bringing something to the table to ensure that the investment from the mentor is worthwhile, but that could be as simple as working hard on the things you commit to do.

Post-seminar photo with organizers of a networking event at Temple University, Philadelphia, on the invitation of one of my mentors, Seun Ariyo. November 2013.

At the heart of it, mentoring is being willing to share your heart, your story, your experiences, your successes or failures with one more person in a bid to help that person make better informed choices; to avoid some of the pitfalls of their predecessors, to gain validity for themselves and their ideas, and to help others down the line. A person who has been mentored is very likely going to mentor others, and that way we keep the circle of life moving in a positive direction.

Mentoring does not need to be stressful or overbearing; it could be the most blissful transfer of knowledge from one person to another for the benefit of the world. Mentoring does not diminish a person’s significance; rather, it extends their influence, and few things are more rewarding than observing the growth of a mentee and knowing that one’s life has got value far beyond its immediate confines. If you’re privileged to have one leg on the corporate ladder of life, you have an obligation to help someone else get on the ladder right behind you. Mentoring is that simple.