“Indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili” is an isiXhosa proverb I grew up hearing. Loosely translated, it means “we ask for directions from the people in front”; that is, we ask for knowledge from those who know and have walked that journey before us. That is essentially what the practice of mentorship is: inspiring, teaching and guiding from knowledge mentors have acquired along the way.

What is a mentor/mentorship?

An article by Business News Daily describes a mentor as someone who is a seasoned professional who informally guides a less experienced person in their professional endeavours. Mentoring can also be a formal experience, like going on a mentorship programme through a business or company, or informal, by asking someone you know who is qualified and well experienced in that field to be your mentor.

Mentors can be the push you need…

I didn’t have a formal mentor while I was an intern or started working. I remember when I started my internships at Cape Town TV; it was my first time working, and I had just come out of varsity. I met a lady who I grew to look up to. Nobesuthu was strict and no-nonsense, and she once told me in front of the news team that I wasn’t dressing well enough for a news reporter. I remember crying; it was horrible, but her straightforwardness made me grow as a writer, reporter, and person during those six months I was there. Until now, she is one of the people I respect and thank for how far I have come; she was the mentor I needed.

I spoke to Lea-Anne Moses, Fundza’s director, who has been both a mentee and a mentor. She shares her experiences with informal mentorship, why it’s essential to have a mentor and gives steps you should take when looking for one.

Could you tell us about your work as a mentor? Who do you mentor, how long have you mentored, and why did you choose to become a mentor?

I’ve been on both sides of the mentorship equation – I’ve served and still serve as a mentor to younger people who’ve reached out to me for guidance/assistance. I’ve been and still am a mentee, always seeking out more experienced colleagues, or even people I admire from afar who have the skills or life lessons I feel will help me in my career or life journey. Mentorships can be formal and informal.

For the young people I’ve mentored, we’ve often agreed that they set up time in advance. Because of my busy schedule, I would like to ensure that I provide the support and guidance agreed upon and that the time is set aside to do this. I’ve often asked mentees to bring a specific challenge or set of goals to each meeting so we can discuss and track progress. I believe that it’s essential for a mentor to provide as much encouragement and support as they can, and sometimes that includes reaching out and tapping into one’s network and taking time to ensure you as the mentor are well equipped to advise/guide.

How can a young person approach someone they want to mentor? What do they need?

You must understand why you’re looking for a mentoring relationship. I can’t stress this enough. I’ve been approached by young people who love the idea of mentorship but don’t know precisely why they contacted me. I would advise young people to take the time to plot their career goals and decide how a mentor can help them achieve those goals. Sometimes you will seek out a particular mentor because of their incredible network, or they are highly skilled in an area you’re interested in, and sometimes it’s because you need access to someone to act as your guide. Research people who you feel would be great mentors – this can come from your network or formal programmes.

Once you’ve decided on a few potential mentors, approach them directly; state what you wish to achieve via the relationship and the time commitments (so they can advise whether it will work for them). Be open to the idea that there may not be great chemistry between you and a mentor and that it’s okay to move to the next prospective mentor on your list!

Why is it important for young people to have a mentor?

I feel all people benefit from having mentors, not only young people. I genuinely believe that learning is a continuous process, and for me, mentors have been incredible in my career and life journey. They’ve helped me shape and sharpen my thinking; they’ve opened fantastic networks, provided me with access to unique opportunities, and pushed me to excel. I’m deeply grateful to all my mentors, and as a mentor, I strive to provide the same support and hope I am the catalyst that helps a young person take their careers to the next level.

As Lea-Anne suggests, when you don’t know the way, ask for directions from people that have walked the same path. They know the shortcuts; they know the blind spots because they have walked that road many times, and one day you will also use those same directions they gave you to guide someone else. It will be your turn to be in the front and to help those behind you.

Another isiXhosa proverb says, ‘Izandla ziyancedana’, meaning “hands help each other” – the right hand is nothing without the left, and vice versa. Remember this, and you may go far.

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Tell us: Have you been a mentee or mentor? If not, in what area would you like to be mentored? And to whom do you feel you could be a mentor?