What to do when your mentor sucks

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Being in the company of outstanding minority journalists at a leadership workshop last week made me realize: I need a mentor.

I’m at that sort of halfway point in my career where I’m often tapped to be a mentor to entry-level journalists, but no one really thinks to offer me the same kind of guidance. My company, in a shockingly uncharacteristic move, assigned me one out of the blue a few years ago. But, in an unshockingly characteristic move, it assigned me exactly the wrong person: a very nice man with whom I had little in common, and whom I thought highly of but always felt did not reciprocate my admiration. We had lunch once. It was nice. I’m pretty sure he came away thinking, Yes, she really is a retard. He didn’t seek me out again.

I thought of this as I met some of the highest-ranking men and women in my business last week. Each of them spoke of people to whom they owed their careers, whether for their guidance or their advocacy or their superior management.

I too have had these people in my life. One in particular has long outgrown her mentor title and ascended to “mom.” But my point is that as our careers and our workplaces shift and redirect, we need to resupply our mentor pipeline. Some ideas:

• Seek out mentors through an employer-sponsored program. Some companies have well-established systems; General Electric assigns employees not just one but a handful of mentors to cover various aspects of their work lives. For instance, if you’re a minority, you might be paired with someone of your ethnic group, so you can vet your concerns about how to navigate the workplace with someone in your shoes. But you also get someone higher up in your own division to teach you how to succeed in that particular team.

• Join a professional association with a mentor program. I belong to an Asian affinity group at Time Inc. called A3, as well as to the Asian American Journalists Association. I’ve offered my services to both organizations for years as a mentor (you’ll be shocked to know I’m a hot pick), but it occurs to me: Why shouldn’t I get to sit on the other side? I’m hardly at the pinnacle of my industry, and my industry offers plenty of senior people I could learn a lot from.

• Cultivate mentors at your own workplace. Like many offices, mine has a revolving door. Just today I learned a favorite editor whom I look to as a role model is leaving. She wasn’t assigned to me as an official mentor, but I’ve looked to her for advice and guidance. Now I’ve just got to widen my net.

What do you do when your mentor—or lack of one—sucks? You go find yourself one, dammit. They don’t come looking for you.

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