The Importance of a Professional Mentor

February 1, 2014, Department, by Michael J. Bradley, Ph.D.

A great mentor will teach you to harness your strengths, overcome your weaknesses and move you to become more than either of you ever thought possible.As a young professional early in my park and recreation career, I have been extremely lucky to have several great mentors. These fantastic individuals instilled in me the tenet of professional service, encouraged constant professional development, assisted me in the evolution of my personal leadership style, helped me understand the importance of inspiring and helping children, and fortified my personal and professional ethics.

As a recreation professional, you can probably recall a specific professional (or more than one) who had a profound impact on your life course in the field. Perhaps your mentor was someone who gave you inspiration to continue working hard and moving forward through words of encouragement, or maybe someone who opened doors for you through knowledge or networking. In any case, a mentor is a special person who moves you and pushes you forward professionally and personally. Through their sharing of industry knowledge, mentors pass along information that helps new professionals. Often, they serve as great door-openers, connecting you with the right individuals in your field and appropriate persons in related fields as well. A good mentor is, simply, invaluable.  

One of the first attributes all good mentors have in common is the ability to reassure you when you need it most. While everyone might need a few words of encouragement from time to time, those that come from someone with years of experience in your field mean so much more. They may offer perspective and directed counsel, highlighting exactly why you should hold your chin up and keep moving forward. Simple and directed reassurance can be quite the motivator and often a good way to immediately get you back on the right track.

The truth is, if you want to propel yourself further and maximize investment in your professional career, you simply do not have the time to make every mistake. While mistakes allow immense levels of learning, avoiding costly mistakes and side-stepping minor inconveniences will aid you in making the best mistakes. Good mentors share their mistakes. There are two benefits to this — the first is to connect to your situation and perhaps help you realize that even experts and leaders in your field are not mistake-free. The second benefit, and perhaps the more important of the two, is that you are able to learn from your mentor’s mistakes. Individual experience is a great teacher, but so is someone else’s experience!

The perspective gained from a solid reality check is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of working with a trusted mentor. Whether it is identifying a not-so-glaring weakness or simply telling you to let bygones be bygones, the best mentor will tell you what you need to hear to be a better person. While friends or business associates may stroke your ego or offer words to soothe your hurt feelings, the words you want to hear and need to hear may be quite different. The mentor-mentee relationship should be one based on honesty and the willingness to engage in open communication. Such candid discussion can help eliminate or solidify your weaknesses — your mentor does not look at you and see your current situation. Instead, he or she sees you as a work in progress. Mentors see what you may become and hope to help you reach your potential. Listen to what your mentor says and take some time to think about the reason for the words of wisdom, as sometimes the reason for a conversation has more impact than the words exchanged. 

A great mentor will teach you to harness your strengths, overcome your weaknesses and move you to become more than either of you ever thought possible. As stated many times before, talent untapped and untrained is useless talent. However, with the right coach, hard work and dedication, talent creates opportunities for success. Think of a mentor as a professional coach offering invaluable insight on a personal and professional level. You must realize that a mentor is not simply a friend, but a motivator, teacher and confidant. 

As I continue to grow and mature as a professional, I still seek advice from my mentors. I was fortunate to have mentors who dedicated themselves to my development, but flourishing under the guidance of these fantastic individuals was no accident. My willingness to learn, admit my shortcomings, take on challenges and invest some good ol’ fashioned elbow grease allowed me to maximize my time with each of them. Moving forward, I still seek out possibilities for new mentoring relationships and look forward to serving as a mentor, an ethic instilled in me by every mentor I have been so lucky to have. If you have a mentor, be sure to thank him or her for their service and investment to you and the field.

Michael J. Bradley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University.

A Guiding Hand

NRPA’s Administrators/Young Professionals Network Mentorship Program, now entering its third year, is beginning to pay serious dividends for its participants. This month, we got word that Tennessee-based mentee Jenna Tyler, who was paired with Kevin Cowling, manager of operations and planning at Clarksville Parks and Recreation, landed a job through the program. While finding gainful employment is certainly an admirable goal, it’s just one benefit that can come from cultivating a strong partnership between mentor and mentee. Passing wisdom and institutional knowledge from someone experienced in his or her field to a fledgling employee is a time-honored tradition, and one that helps to grow confident, well-informed, engaged professionals. Many respected executives, in both the public and private sectors, cite the support, influence and encouragement of a mentor as a contributing reason for their success.  As a member benefit under the NRPA Network system, both the Administrators and Young Professionals Networks are dedicated to grooming professionals for the challenges of senior management positions in the field of parks and recreation. NRPA is firmly committed to fostering mentoring relationships that will prepare our mentee members to be the next generation of leaders. For more information about how to get involved, contact Eric Hamp, NRPA’s senior manager of member relations.

Samantha Bartram, Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine