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  • Malcolm De Leo

Time Traveler; The Modern-Day Mentor/Mentee Relationship




Simply put, the concept of a mentor mentee relationship isnʻt what is used to be or maybe it was always flawed. When I started my career, I would seek out folks I thought could teach me all the things I didn’t know. I craved their wisdom, know-how, experience, and often their connections as well. Looking back the concept seems opportunistic to a fault. Finding people you like because of what you can get from them is a broken relationship from the start.

The flaws arenʻt just on the mentee side but the mentors as well. For the mentor, while you might think your intentions are good when you decide to build this type of relationship, there is a case to be made that being a mentor is as much about ego and need to be heard as it is to teach. Like any mentor, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the chance to give people my counsel, but often these relationships go to a place that is well beyond that. There is sinister power in knowing you have someone who needs what you have.


This might seem like a cynical view of the interplay between important relationships we all have, but bear with me on this. It isn’t that the concept of mentoring is bad, it's the approach we take to the relationship that needs a new operational definition. Times have changed. New generations think differently and have different expectations. With the advent of technology, the rate a person can become an expert is accelerating. Experienced people while powerful because of their time doing something aren’t always able to see the nuances of all those changes going on. The point is mentoring needs a fresh approach.


Thinking differently about Mentoring


So what is a better alternative to finding a mentor? Sure anyone looking to have a mentor wants someone who they know has wisdom, skills and expertise that can help them learn as they grow. This is a clear learning by doing approach by linking up with someone who has already done it. But why must this relationship have to be subservient? Why does it have to be one-sided? Why does it only have to be about the mentee gaining valuable experience from the person with the experience? This is where the Time Traveler comes in. This idea is a twist on what a mentor is. And it requires that the mentor be willing to see their role differently. The Mentee always wants to learn for the most part, it's the power the mentor has that must be repurposed.

Introducing the Time Traveler

When I was younger and growing in my career, I found a mentor. We met by chance when I was designing an innovation course. I was an executive charged with changing the culture of a large organization. It was a hard job and I needed a profiling tool to help me assess how people liked to innovate. One of the folks on my team told me about this profiling instrument they came across and I loved it. It just made sense. Excited, I wanted to meet the CEO of the company. When I met him we hit it off, we were finishing each other's sentences. He was about 25 years my senior, had been an innovation leader and it was like talking to Yoda.


Over time our relationship as mentor and mentee developed. I came to rely on him for a wide variety of learnings that really had me excited. It was refreshing to talk to someone who understood where I was coming from and was willing to teach me. We talked regularly and often, me chasing to seek out the wisdom and knowledge he owned. There was nothing strange about it. Until I noticed something. When it came to our field of expertise, innovation, we were becoming peers. I started building out aspects of his own work that he hadn’t thought of. He sought out my ideas. It was enlightening. I expected my mentor to be all knowing, but quickly learned our combined creativity was really when the magic happened.


But there was something else. Now we recognized we were becoming peers from an ideation perspective, but we were still not peers from a life experience perspective. I often found myself ambitiously worrying about something or trying to figure out how to accelerate and progress. I would worry about things beyond my control. And during those many conversations, my “mentor” would remain calm. He would almost soothingly chuckle at me reassuring me I was headed in the right direction. While we could cross teach knowledge all the time, I began to realize that I was walking a path he already had and that this was the special mentoring I needed; life wisdom as it pertains to my career journey.


My First Mentor was a Time Traveler

It was like working alongside my future self who had come back to guide me towards the path that I can’t see because I hadn’t yet reached that place. And thus mentoring changed for me. I realized I should seek out Time Travelers. A more powerful relationship involved people respectful of wisdom and experience but also wanting a peer-based relationship where both parties gain equally. So you see, it isn’t that mentors are bad, it is that to get the most out of the relationship everyone needs to rethink how information flows, who provides what help and how everyone needs to leave their ego at the door if real growth is going to happen; for both parties.

What makes a Time Traveler better than a mentor?

  1. They recognize your wisdom too: Time travelers know a lot. They have all the things you want from a mentor only their focus is recognizing you are wise in areas they are not. Sure, their vast experience may let them see around corners you can’t. But in the end, their curiosity about what you can teach them should be as strong as your desire to learn from them

  2. They see you as a peer not a subordinate: A good Time Traveler is humble enough to recognize that your skills and knowledge are different and as valuable as theirs. They work to build the relationship because they see value in what you bring to the table because great leaps forward can be made when this new type of mentoring is meant to drive collaborative learning and not pejorative learning

  3. They won’t hold your inexperience against you: The Time Traveler relationship is about the word time because a key element of finding one is linking up with someone who is older than you. And this means while they may be old, their life experience usually gives them a leg up on your life experience. But a good Time Traveler will never belittle you for your inexperience. They will challenge you to recognize the growth you need to embrace, help you see ways to avoid pitfalls they have, and most importantly do so with kindness and patience.

  4. They are vulnerable, open and have little ego: In a world where things move fast and experienced people often feel left behind it is quite easy for a mentor to wield their power with an iron fist. Time travelers won’t. They recognize the value of the younger generations in helping them stay connected to what they don’t know. By becoming your peer, they show a vulnerability as your mentor to the fact that they still have lots to learn. And to be vulnerable it takes being open and putting their ego aside. If they are eager to return the bond of friendship even though they know they have the wisdom you crave, awesome things can happen.

  5. They are curious life learners: To leave your ego at the door means your time traveler is willing to never stop learning. And if you think about it, you are taking on the mentoring of a time traveler too, because let’s face it, the generational gap is huge, the culture gap seems more daunting than ever, and the need from cross generational collaboration is critical to healing a divided world.

Where do I look for a time traveler if I want to have on instead of a mentor?


Half the battle of driving change is aligning on an operational definition everyone can agree on. If you see the wisdom of this new way of defining the mentor/mentee relationship it’s your job to carefully be on the lookout. Based on the many factors described here, finding a time traveler is often difficult, because the world has adopted what some might consider a flawed definition of mentor. Again, many mentors probably have elements of the time traveler in them, but my experience often has shown that mentors like to play snatch the pebble from my hand more than actually sharing how to do so or perhaps thinking you might have a better game to play that is more valuable. The only advice I can give is recognize the time travelers characteristics or simply ask yourself if the mentor in your life fits the definition. If they do, reframe the definition of who they can be and get going. Otherwise, pay close attention you might be missing a valuable and different relationship that is standing right in front of you waiting to help you along on your journey to self-awareness, excellence and opportunity.


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