"The ordinary literary man, even though he be an eminent historian, is ill-fitted to be a mentor in affairs of government. For ... things are for the most part very simple in books, and in practical life very complex."
-Former President Woodrow Wilson
You've received your certificate from massage school, passed the national certification test and now have your state license. As you push your way into this new career, you may realize you only know the most basic guidelines for succeeding in practice.
Who do you call for advice regarding this new business venture? Your mentor. Every successful massage therapist would be lost without one.
What is a mentor? A mentor is someone who has more experience than you and can answer questions about how to do modalities, improve techniques, solve ethical issues or just give moral support. They're guides, gurus, teachers, friends and antagonists. They're your guardian angel and your big brother at the same time, someone who can pat you on the back with one hand and give you a push with the other. If you meet someone who you'd "want to be like when you grow up," then consider this person a good candidate to become your mentor.
In addition, mentors are often experts with advanced training and accomplishments in a particular field. Is there someone you know who has a long list of clients and does great marketing? Or, a massage therapist who's well known for a particular modality? How about a financial planner or banker who sets up accounting systems and explains complex money issues easily? Mentors can be anyone you know who can help you accomplish your goals.
Most importantly, a mentor is someone you can feel comfortable with, someone you can trust.
Currently, I have two mentors. One has been a massage therapist for more than 15 years and can answer my questions about unfamiliar situations (for example, if can you use essential oils during a prenatal massage) or ethical boundary issues (such as how to talk to a client about being consistently late for appointments). The other mentor is a member of my local Small Business Association, and this person gives me feedback on my business plan, marketing and accounting.
Here are some tips for how to find a mentor, develop the relationship and when to move on.
Where to look
• Teachers. Your massage school is probably the easiest place to find a mentor. Did you connect with one of your massage school instructors? Did a guest lecturer surprise you with his insights? Did someone presenting a continuing education class pique your interest in the subject?
• Co-workers. Again, this is a great place to look for mentors because you see firsthand what they do. Some businesses team up new employees with more seasoned ones to help the transition into a new place.
• Spa owners. Thinking about owning your own spa? Then someone who owns a spa would be a great mentor, providing insight into the ups and downs of the business.
• Small Business Association and chamber of commerce. While I pride myself in my massage skills, I flounder when it comes to anything financial. So I contacted my local Small Business Association who teamed me up with Steve, who ran his own business for 30 years before retiring. Even though he wasn't a massage therapist, he knew the ins and outs of developing plans, setting up marketing strategies and how to package my business. Most chambers of commerce have monthly meet-and-greet networking opportunities-this is a great way to connect with people in your community and find someone who could be a mentor.
• Competing massage therapists. You've heard about a modality and found someone in your community who practices it; or there's a massage therapist you know who has been in the business for a long time and is well respected. Why not approach these experts about being your mentor? They may be happy to share some of their secrets.
• Professional associations. Are you a member of the American Massage Therapy Association or Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals? Have you been to any of their regional or national conferences? These events give you an opportunity to meet like-minded people, and they open up the possibility of finding a mentor.
Characteristics to look for in a mentor
• Experience or skill in something you're interested in. The more your mentor knows, the more she can teach you.
• Ability to both lead and follow. Good mentors can teach, but are also open to learning new things.
• Good communicator. Good mentors listen as much as (and sometimes more than) they talk.
• They use many different ways to teach. Good mentors may know books or articles you can read to help you understand what they're talking about. They can show techniques and describe what they're doing clearly, then step back and let their trainee try it. They may feel comfortable with you "shadowing" them for a day. They act as a sounding board for any ideas you may have. Plus, they have infinite patience with all of your questions.
• Gives good feedback. This can be both positive and negative, but both are presented compassionately, not critically.
Developing the relationship
• First, you need to feel comfortable with your mentor. This means you feel OK about talking to your mentor, that you don't feel intimidated or in awe. Mentoring is about building connections, not hero worship.
• Approach your potential mentor gently. For example, you noticed your mentor is really good at something (massage, business, etc.) and you ask if you can "pick her brain." Most people are flattered when asked for their opinion, but some aren't. Be prepared to hear "no" from them.
• Set boundaries. This doesn't have to be formal. If you work with your mentor, try getting together sometime before or after work. If it's someone in the business community, be prepared to work around the person's schedule. Mentors may not be available the moment you have a question, but they'll always get back to you. Also, make sure your mentor does not take advantage of the relationship and ask you to complete chores she doesn't like to do (laundry, cleaning, etc.). You're creating a supportive relationship, so no backstabbing, stealing clients or ideas, or doing anything to undermine your mentor. Be sure you know what your boundaries are, and be willing to talk about them.
• Don't be a pest. There are appropriate times to talk with your mentor and times to back off. There was one massage therapist who would wait outside my massage room to ask me questions, even when I was with clients; another would follow me around like a puppy, mimicking everything I did. That's both unprofessional and annoying.
• Show appreciation. This could a simple "thank you," a small gift (such as massage oil) or an occasional meal. A couple of mentors I talked with said they become leery when someone walks up to them and asks, "Would you be my mentor?" Too often these become giving relationships, where the mentors give but never get anything back. Be sure your mentor know how much you're grateful for her help.
• Long- or short-term relationships are OK. For instance, I had one mentor who worked with me for six weeks, showing me the way the spa we were employed by wanted certain modalities done. After that, I saw him maybe twice in six months. I also have a mentor who was one of my first co-workers from five years ago. I don't talk with her often, but I know she'll always contact me when I need some insight.
Ending the relationship
There's often a time when either you or your mentor will dissolve the relationship. Maybe you're leaving the area or have been offered another job. Or, maybe you've learned as much as possible from the relationship and need to move on. Maybe you discover that your personalities don't mesh, and the relationship creates more problems than it solves. It's OK to let your mentor go, graciously thanking her but explaining why it's time to go. It's also OK for a mentor to "fire" you, even if things seem to be going well.
Be sure to grab the baton when it's passed and become a mentor yourself. Is there a new employee who seems lost most of the time? Or someone you've heard negative feedback about from clients? Offer to take this person under your wing and support him in his career as a massage therapist. What goes around really does come back to you.