You’ll hear people talk about them a lot. People should be mentors. People should have mentors. People should both have and be a mentor.
I not only have a mentor, I have several people who I think of as mentors. Some are people I’ve worked with in one fashion or another. Some are colleagues I’ve known for a long time. Some are in the same phase of their career that I am; some are one or two steps ahead of me. All are people whose opinions I respect and value; and have been more than gracious with their time. In some cases, I’d like to think we’ve mentored each other. While I have a lot of professional relationships, not all of those people are ones I consider mentors. My mentors have given me professional advice, not just on a technical topic, but on the nuances of leadership. They’ve allowed me to speak confidentially. They’ve helped keep my career on track.
If I only had one mentor, I’d be missing out on a world of benefit. Here’s some reasons why you want to have many mentors:
Different mentors will tell you different things. This may be obvious, but yes, especially if you’re asking for advice on a particular situation, you will get different responses from different people. Sometimes this advice will be wildly different from person to person. But, in general, there will be some overlap, and you can use the common threads of the advice to more firmly establish your course of action.
You will tell different mentors different things. Not because you’re deceitful (at least I hope not) but the fact that people have different personalities, and will focus on different aspects of what you’re saying, means that you will actually have different relationships with different people, and you will emphasize certain parts of yourself over others. No one person is likely to get a complete picture of who you are and the issues you face, because you probably won’t disclose all of it to them, or only parts of your story will resonate with them in a meaningful way.
Avoiding mentor fatigue. You don’t want to overburden or use too much of your mentors’ time–they have their own careers to worry about, most likely, and are likely in a mentoring relationship with several people (at least you hope they are, because even though they will not share others’ experiences directly with you, they will use the insight they’ve gained from others’ issues to inform the advice they give you). So if you have a complicated and difficult issue, or anything you just need to talk about a lot, you can “farm it out” to several mentors, and use their time most efficiently.
Plausible deniability. If you only have one mentor, people may think that person has undue influence on your decisions. More importantly, that person may have undue influence on your decisions. If you have several mentors, giving you different advice as mentioned above, you will still have to ultimately make a decision and choose your own direction. You will get to take credit for your successes (but of course a gracious person will acknowledge the help they’ve received along the way.)
Multiple sources of help and assistance. Your mentors are part of your network–also composed of peers, proteges, acquaintances, colleagues, etc. Mentors are often people who connect you to other parts of your professional community, like Kevin Bacon. (Note: Kevin Bacon is not one of my mentors. Idol, perhaps.) At any rate, multiple mentors mean a broader profile for you in the professional community, and that will provide all sorts of opportunities for collaboration and further knowledge sharing, and further extend your reach through your professional network.
So, if you haven’t yet, think about who you currently rely on as your mentor or mentors. Consider bringing some new people into your life as mentors. Mentor/protege is not a monogamous relationship; in fact good mentors will encourage you to seek out other mentors, especially for the things they know they’re not as strong with.
P.S.: I’m doing everything I can to stop the proliferation of the word “mentee”. We already have a word for the person who’s being mentored.