Look Left, Look Right
How many times have you heard “Go find a mentor”? Most people think of mentoring as hierarchical. Mentees look for a mentor, a few rungs up the ladder, to open doors, guide, and provide opportunities for them. Traditional mentorship is simple and often very effective. But did you know there is another way to find a mentor? I’m talking about lateral mentors. Let me explain.
No one needs to tell us the value of finding a mentor who can help us climb the career ladder to success. Someone in our field who has already gone down the path we are looking to go down ourselves. Although these mentors are essential for us to climb the corporate ladder, so many other mentors help us succeed, and they are usually sitting right next to us. Here’s what I mean. Bill Cheswick, the father of the firewall and author of the book Firewalls and Internet Security (remember the days when we didn’t have any security on the internet? Well, next time you send an email or do online banking, thank Bill), wanted to solve the problem of an insecure internet. He had expertise in all sorts of engineering, but he lacked the engineering needed to crack the code. So, he wheeled his Bell Labs office chair from his desk over to an expert a few desks down and asked for help. His colleague obliged. Bill got guidance and added expertise needed to understand the problem (and this wasn’t just a common office problem—but a world-changing problem). After he wheeled himself back to his desk and realized he needed additional guidance, he wheeled himself around over to his colleague and asked for more help. His mentor felt compelled to help because Bill gave him advice when needed. Neither one was the boss, and the project was always Bill’s project, but it would never have happened if Bill had tried to solve it on his own. This is lateral mentoring. And it happens all the time!
Bill Cheswick – photo provided with permission
How often have you done this at work? You’ve gone to a different department or formed a team of experts from various backgrounds so you can get expert advice and guidance as needed. We all do this but don’t value it as we should. These mentor relationships are the backbone of our tech and science revolutions. No one person changed our tech world. Even Steve Jobs had mentors (one was Steve Wozniak). Speaking of Steve Jobs is often thought of as the person who changed the computer world. He did, but it wasn’t alone. It was with lateral mentors. Here’s what I mean. I was speaking with Al Alcorn, the inventor of Pong (for anyone with kids who played endless hours of video games while quarantined, thank Al because he is the grandfather of video games). Al talked about how Steve Jobs worked for him at Atari as an engineer, and he couldn’t get the work done to create a new video game they were working on. Then, one night, in a Rumplestiltskin manner, a lot of the work was magically done. Al couldn’t figure out how. Night after night, this kept happening. The result was getting done in record time. Steve Jobs called Steve Wozniak to help him solve the problem. Steve Wozniak would come in the evenings and work on the new game. And the project was completed in record time. Some people think Steve hoodwinked Steve into helping him because Steve Jobs got all the credit, but this was lateral mentoring because Steve Wozniak was happy to mentor his friend. It wasn’t Steve’s boss who helped and guided him; it was his friend and expert in an area he wasn’t.
Is this the only field lateral mentorship works? No. This happens in writing. So often, writers have others who help them out with ideas, editing, etc. I have mentors for writing. My editor helps me find my voice or moves me away from a topic and guides me to something better suited to my expertise. I have a very creative colleague, who teaches me when I need creativity in my pieces, and I, in turn, help him find an active voice in his writing. This can mean the difference between having writing published or having it end up in the trash.
Lateral mentors are everywhere. And, I guarantee you, you’ve mentored someone laterally as well. Just think of all the times you sat with someone to help them with something they were working on. You didn’t do it for them; you weren’t hired to work on it, but you guided, supported, and added your skills and knowledge.
Lateral mentorship is often more powerful in the workplace than mentors who are higher level. Having support from various skills at the same level creates an emotional support network that involves trust and intimacy. This is because we need to be able to show our vulnerabilities, to show that we don’t know all the answers when we seek guidance from a peer. We also have to be willing to accept help from others.
Have you ever had a co-worker who didn’t help others? How far did that person get? What about a person who won’t accept help from others and always works alone on projects—how far do they get? We get places by developing relationships with others, helping them, and accepting help from others. These relationships often lead to long-term friendships (see Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak). Mentorship is based on trust and meaningful connections. It isn’t a one-way street; it isn’t always about taking an elevator or escalator up to the next level. It is sometimes a winding path and, in some cases, a giant leap forward.
Midlife is the perfect time to engage in lateral mentoring. We can share our knowledge and skills with the meaningful connections we’ve made or are fostering. And, it is the perfect time to take advantage of our friends and colleagues who have skills that are different from ours.