How to Find a Mentor

In Homer’s literary epic The Odyssey, when Odysseus departed to fight the Trojans he left behind a dear and trusted friend—a wise old seaman named Mentor—to guide his son Telemachus. Mentor’s insight and loyalty served Odysseus well during his lengthy absence. Mentor taught Telemachus not just the physical skills that were key to surviving in their violence-filled society, but he also cultivated the boy’s mental prowess. Just as important, he instilled in Telemachus a sense of his father’s morality.

Through the years, the word “mentor” has come to mean “trusted friend” and “counselor.” But in today’s social climate, where so much attention is focused on climbing the career ladder, mentor has taken on a new connotation—”career guide” or “executive nurturer.” Several studies have shown that people with a professional mentor are more successful on the job than those who don’t have such personal guidance. Proteges edge out their nonmentored peers in terms of both salary growth and number of promotions, according to the studies. Not surprisingly, greater job satisfaction is also a benefit reported by both parties in a mentor/mentee relationship.

Why should you seek out a mentor?

While mentoring used to be an ingrained part of daily life—parents passed on their skills to their offspring, young people looking to learn a trade apprenticed with craftsmen and aspiring artists worked alongside the masters—in today’s time-stretched and competitive atmosphere, passing along the torch of information isn’t such a natural process.

Today’s young workers are generally well-educated and have varied life experiences that should more than adequately equip them for their work roles. But wisdom doesn’t come from books alone. A good mentoring relationship goes far beyond the classroom, with both parties working toward a collaborative goal of developing the protege’s skills, abilities, knowledge and thinking. Good mentors don’t train clones—they must empower their mentees to capitalize on their diversity, creativity, ideas and initiative.

While it sounds easy enough—just pair up a willing mentor with a likely protege—a number of obstacles stand in the way of success. One of the biggest is the reluctance by many professionals to share what they know. After all, they came by their knowledge through years of trial and error, so why should they make it easy for someone else? Plus, many professionals believe that their specific cache of information is what makes them so vital to their firms, so why put their future in jeopardy by training a predecessor? They might be right. But then again, how successful can a company be that runs on fear and intimidation?

At the same time, some company principals may be reluctant to engage in mentoring for fear that, in being so generous with their knowledge, they’re training future competitors. These beliefs are widespread in business and can be found even within the supposedly nurturing folds of a creative firm.

Guidance and Inspiration

Fortunately, more and more businesses are learning that mentoring can lead to great things. (In fact, there’s a prospering industry of companies that teach corporations how to establish mentoring systems or that arrange and oversee such programs for them.) Companies that support mentoring programs and those professionals who give fully of themselves in a mentor’s role are reaping the rewards. Much of this comes in the form of the proteges’ innovative contributions and the subsequent competitive edge this gives their employers.

Ann Willoughby, head of Willoughby Design Group (WDG) in Kansas City, MO, says her company is a case in point. The nurturing atmosphere at WDG has helped make the firm financially successful, earn a good reputation and attract superior staff. “That’s a great way to sustain a business,” she says.

Has she ever worried about her proteges leaving to open their own firms, armed with her “inside” information? “In fact, I have had that happen,” she reveals. “And you know, it was just fine. It was completely with my blessing. It was a joyful event, because I really know that this is what the employee needed to do. There’s no need for widespread fear. After all, not everyone is cut out to run a company.” In fact, Willoughby saw her mentee’s success as a barometer of her own. “If I hadn’t done what I do well, then maybe she wouldn’t have been able to do what she did,” Willoughby explains.

Personal gratification is yet another benefit realized by those who mentor young talent—the kind of gratification that comes from knowing you’re making a lasting impression on the next generation. “I get incredible satisfaction from watching other people grow,” Willoughby says. “It’s just thrilling.”

Her time as a teacher at the University of Kansas and as a studio owner has allowed Willoughby plenty of opportunity to nurture young talent. Though her company doesn’t have a formal mentoring program in place, WDG has established a bi-level intern program—with one level accommodating juniors or seniors in design school and the other for post-graduate designers—that depends on professional nurturing for success. “Almost always some connection is made between one of the designers and one of the interns,” Willoughby notes.

Much of Willoughby’s strong belief in mentoring comes from being a protege herself. Design legend Milton Glaser took her under his wing after the two met at the Aspen Design Conference in 1973. “It’s actually a mentorship and a friendship—one that continues today,” Willoughby says.

When Willoughby met Glaser, she was five years out of school and was tackling the demands of establishing a career and raising two young children. She found herself among the few mothers in those days who were working in the design profession—or in any profession, for that matter. Juggling a career and a family is hard enough today for both men and women, but in the early ’70s a stigma was associated with women who, in pursuing a career, were “abandoning” their real duties as mothers in society’s mind. Although the sexual revolution was well underway, women with children were still expected to stay home and raise the kids, no matter how much education or talent they might have.

“I probably would’ve given up and done something else that was easier just because my confidence and talent weren’t developed enough to give me the amount of faith needed to continue during those stressful years,” Willoughby recalls. That chance meeting with Glaser, however, changed things. “He encouraged me to not give up. He allowed me to believe in myself and my work, and that made all the difference.”

Seeing Outside the Box

Several qualities determine a great mentor. Foremost is the one Willoughby so aptly demonstrates—self-confidence. The ability to nurture a mentee’s special talents rather than simply teaching her to mimic what you do is another trait vital to a good mentor. Designer Martin Venezky, who runs his studio Appetite Engineers in San Francisco as well as teaching part time at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), learned this aspect of mentoring first-hand from his own mentor, Katherine McCoy.

Venezky entered Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1991 in search of a master’s degree in design (his bachelor’s came from Dartmouth College, where he majored in fine art), but he soon discovered that he was learning much more than technique and theory. After Venezky spent 11 years working as a design professional, McCoy was teaching him for the first time how to truly think and to push himself.

“Whenever Kathy saw me working on something using techniques or images I was comfortable with, she would twist it and challenge me to design without them, to force myself into a handicap. At first I didn’t understand why she was doing that—I thought she was just being cruel,” he says, laughing. “But very quickly you realize that it opens up so many more possibilities.

“As designers, we have a tendency to repeat ourselves,” Venezky adds. “We find a typeface we’re comfortable with or a kind of imagery, whether it’s vernacular or abstract or whatever, and we keep using it because we, like humans in general, love praise. And if we’ve gotten praise for doing it that way once, we’ll keep doing it. It’s very hard to move yourself off that track and try something new, and that’s Kathy’s greatest strength.”

Count on Your Peers

Mentors can come in all forms. They don’t necessarily have to be someone who, on the surface, appears older and wiser than you. A person who’d normally be your peer can be a great mentor, as Venezky’s relationship with designer Lucille Tenazas demonstrates. “I went to a lecture of Lucille’s recently, and I was really taken with how many of the things she talked about that I also talk about and practice,” he notes. “It was an eye-opener to see how much I’ve been influenced by her.”

Venezky credits Tenazas with helping him “figure out what I wanted to do” and even with helping him decide to attend Cranbrook—a choice he made after participating in a weekend workshop Tenazas conducted. “At the time, I was doing mundane work and Lucille was doing really interesting stuff. I was just desperate to find any information about this new way of looking at design. Her workshop really affected me.”

Tenazas also helped Venezky secure a teaching post at CCAC and then counseled him in establishing the experimental, nurturing tone of his classes. “Kathy had always insisted that at some point in their careers her students should become teachers to spread the ideas and the word about what we were learning,” Venezky says.

So when Tenazas, who was teaching at CCAC, approached him about teaching there, he jumped at the chance. It was 1993 and Venezky was fresh out of Cranbrook. By this time, Tenazas had been with CCAC eight years. Her experience and insight proved invaluable, Venezky says, in leading him through many of the problems associated with teaching—everything from how much to expect from the students to how much material he should cover in each class.

Helping people grow

Following the lead of his two mentors, Venezky has established a teaching style built upon encouraging students to find their own voices. In the process, he hopes to earn their respect, which he believes is vital to successful teaching and mentoring. “You don’t learn anything from those you don’t respect,” he remarks. “And you can’t force anyone to respect you. In the work situation, especially in the early stages of your career, young designers absolutely must work with someone they respect and who they agree is better than they are, or they won’t learn anything. You don’t learn from books and you don’t learn from computers. You learn from other human beings. So a mentor must gain the protege’s respect to do their job well.”

And the best way to do that? “Be honest and open,” Venezky advises. “Be vulnerable and take critiquing seriously—not like you’re an art director, but like someone who is challenging each protege to go the next step. I use Kathy as a model for how to coax new things from my students,” he says.

Willoughby concurs: “The thing I learned when I was teaching at KU is that people’s talents are very different, and they need to be encouraged to find their own voice. I found out how much better students did when they were encouraged to be who they were and to do what they did rather than to emulate someone else. I still feel that way now that I’m running a business.”

What does Venezky get in return for the extra time and effort he devotes to teaching and mentoring? “You learn a lot about yourself and you can teach others to not make the same mistakes you did,” he answers. “In a way, you get to absolve your own stupidity by helping someone else. You get to watch them grow and develop from being awkward students with great ideas but not a lot of skills into people who can really express themselves in the medium. It’s just so exciting to see.”

The effects of mentoring can be permanent, Willoughby says. The impact she and her WDG colleagues (five senior designers) have had on interns and the firm’s junior designers, along with the lasting impression she made on several of her KU students, surprises even Willoughby.

“I had a student in one of my classes 20 years ago who recently wrote a grant to work on a project with me. She tells me things I said back when I was teaching that I don’t even remember, but she thinks they made all the difference to her,” Willoughby says. Willoughby also found that she influenced three women in her own family (two nieces and a cousin) to choose careers in art. “It really touched me. I had no idea that what I was doing had that much of an effect on them,” she says.

“The point I want to make is that when we’re working with young people, we don’t realize how important every word that we say is to them,” she says. “Everything can make a difference in either a positive or a negative way. How you live your life and how you act in business really set the stage for other people, even though you’re not always aware of it.”