T he word mentor always came with a preconception to me in the years I grew my career. It wasn’t until much later that it became clear that every person who had any kind of influence on me was a form of mentor.
I used to see a mentor as an aged, wisened Mr Miyagi-type character who takes a young protege under their wing and helps them grow from a rebellious teen into the hero they are always destined to be. These preconceptions were most-likely born out of feeding my brain with too much Star Wars and 80s coming of age movies.
The Invisible Mentors
Mentors are all around us – friends, family, colleagues, bosses – each playing their part in our overall character development. Nuggets of micro-wisdom imparted through the telling of their own experiences. When I began the early part of my publishing career – the magazine designer-turned-art director bit which came after the initial film-runner-turned-production assistant bit, my mentors were obvious. There was a structure.
As an inexperienced designer learning on the job I looked to the senior members of my team and ultimately my team art director, to guide my creative endeavours.
Later, when I looked to apply for a position on another magazine in the same company but couldn’t talk to my boss, I asked the advice of our experienced group art director, who I had huge respect for. He said some wise things I can’t remember 20 years later.
I didn’t get that job but going through the motions of applying helped me get the next one. I grew through the ranks of the art department and when I was asked to apply for my next position, I felt ready.
If you run a business from home or you’re growing a company from scratch, advice and support from people who understand is invaluable.
I’m not the greatest interviewee (just read any self-deprecating previous blog post) but I generally let my work do the talking. I remember being pretty critical of the current design in my interview (as the editor confirmed later) but I worked thoroughly through possible solutions to fix the issues I saw.
It worked and so began a period of my life in which I was pretty much winging it, working on my own instincts, with no direct guidance from any senior creatives. There was no ‘group creative director’ figure to tell me my ideas were right or wrong, my choice of fonts were naive or primitive. But the lack of a creative mentor proved beneficial too.
There were advantages to not working under an ‘assigned’ mentor. My design and photography choices needed to be very considered, with reasoned decisions firmly behind them. It would be my own personal battle against design-for-design sake which I saw in so many magazines at the time.
Under whatever leadership I could muster, I introduced new skills to the art department – we retouched most of our images (the norm now but in 2002 was not so quick and painless) because we cared how they would print. We started shooting products to save money (our choice). I experimented as far as I could with colour printing techniques for the cover and learned techniques from retouchers which I’d later use through my career.
When I started at the next, much bigger magazine I was equipped. Still no direct creative mentoring but a new set of department heads who helped guide me with their own knowledge, and a strong art team who knew their own minds. Each of them were mentors to me in some way, helping my knowledge and skill set grow still broader.
At the hierarchical top of this mentoring tree was always my editor. A skilled editor knows how to mentor an art director without them even knowing. It’s a careful balance of building a cage big enough for them to run free, but not so big that it’s infinite. We need to stay on brand, of course, though we like to push that brand envelope as far as possible.
There were others I looked to as well – other art directors who could lend a creative opinion, publishers and management staff who had become closer as I grew professionally.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my big open-plan office was full of mentors.
But what I didn’t have, and what I didn’t know I was searching for, was someone to play a part in my whole journey. Someone who I could share my problems and questions with, regardless of where they worked or how office politics might influence the ability to speak openly. I’m not talking about a life coach. I’m not talking about a cost.
Work is transient. We encounter people so closely for such a long time we think they will always be part of our lives. But there is no contract, no guarantee. We move on – our lives change with new responsibilities. Our values adjust and our perception of the future pivots. We have kids, move away and our priorities inevitably move too. Where are those people we leaned on and learned from for so many years? They’ve moved on too.
When I left the world of publishing I was on my own, and within a few months I missed the people. I had decided to start my own business, with no knowledge of what that would mean or how to do it. I just found a seed of confidence somewhere along the way.
There were no open plan offices in the first year of setting up on my own. As a family we had a new flat, a new baby and I had quit my job. I knew working from home wasn’t the answer for me. The only option was to find a small office somewhere and gamble that I could make enough to cover the rent. I’d be more productive and feel like I was growing something.
I persuaded my best mate to share the space, and we worked on our own projects, having each other to bounce off. A couple of years later we inevitably formed a company and worked together towards a greater goal of growing it. We employed staff and moved to a bigger office.
More staff and another, even bigger office. It was all looking rosy for the future.
But I was lacking something pretty major. A guide, a confidant, someone who I could turn to when I couldn’t turn to my mates or my wife.
After 5 years my friend and business partner made the decision to quit. We parted company amicably, remained friends and I took over the business. Now I would be completely and utterly responsible for the ‘make’ or the ‘break’.
But I realised you can’t make decisions alone. Those ideas need to bounce off other brains, returning to yours either validated or in need of further opinion.
My answer came in reaching out beyond my immediate connections. I started to listen online to the conversations happening between entrepreneurs in the US. They seemed to have this mentoring thing down. It was as if I was living my life in blinkers. Why had nobody taught me about these simple approaches to work and life before? People had been practicing these things for centuries.
I began making the effort to meet new people, with entrepreneurship as our common thread.
I was chatting to people I genuinely connected with who understood my own mind. They read the same books, understood my mindset and more importantly than anything, shared their knowledge and experience in a relevant and supportive way.
My personal mentor circle is growing and it’s one of the most powerful changes I’ve made in my professional career.
If you run a small business from home or you’re growing a company from scratch, advice and support from people who understand is invaluable. Sharing ideas with those people in order to validate them or grab some essential feedback is key to motivating you to move forward.
You both become your accountability partners – invisibly driving each other on to the next small step.
It’s because of the importance of mentoring that I set up The Mentor Exchange – so people can connect with other like-minded people and get to know them, talk about their thoughts and ideas, share advice and support, in a space which is secure and inclusive.
My mentorship journey is not over.
I hope you’ll continue yours.