As children, everything we do in life comes with a coach, a teacher, or a parent directing us and helping us along the way. Words of encouragement are plentiful, and there always seems to be someone looking out for our well-being. As adults, this relationship is much more difficult to establish. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone assisting you in life and helping you find professional satisfaction?
Many leading organizations and successful people (including Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In) have named mentors as being critical to an individual’s success. Sheryl Sandberg admits it is hard to create an organic mentor relationship: she was once working with a woman whom she felt she had offered a fair amount of mentor-esque help, and Sandberg was surprised when the woman complained about not having anyone ever mentor her. When Sandberg had her describe what she thought a mentor was, the woman said it was someone whom she could meet with every week for an hour. That is a therapist, replied Sandberg (good one, Sheryl).
I have to admit, before reading Lean In, I also imagined my mentor in a fairly formal setting: probably a senior executive, and we’d sit together while my adviser would encourage me, give me insight, and help me identify opportunities while avoiding pitfalls. My imagined mentor was someone who had “been there, done that,” as they say. Well, probably like many of you, this “Yoda mentor” doesn’t exist in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t seek out helpful advice with a respected person at any given moment. If you open yourself up to finding mentoring moments with many different people at various levels, you can gain a ton of valuable insight from a diverse set of people, which can actually be better than just having one mentor.
Why is Mentoring Important?
Let’s start by answering the question: What good can a mentor do me? The study “Career Benefits Associated with Mentoring Protégés: A Meta Analysis” from the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people who are mentored and sponsored report having more career success, such as higher compensation, a greater number of promotions, more job satisfaction and a higher level of career commitment. Sheryl Sandberg references this study as she explains the benefits of mentoring, “Both men and women with sponsors are more likely to ask for stretch assignments and pay raises than their peers of the same gender without sponsors.”
In my opinion, mentors are crucial in helping individuals connect the dots between their abilities and their potential, their goals and their successes. They provide the advice, confidence, and the network that allows individuals find their avenue of success.
How Can We Identify Crucial Mentoring Moments?
Being able to identify the mentoring moments as they present themselves to you is important. Always keep a pen and a notebook handy so you can write down any advice you get, this way you can refer to your notebook when you’re in need of inspiration. Here are some moments that may serve as an opportunity to learn and grow:
Critical feedback: You might hate it at first, and you definitely won’t forget it anytime soon. Instead of taking it personally as an insult, use it as a catalyst for improvement. I can’t tell you how thankful I was the day Shauna Mackenzie, founder of Best Kept Self, constructively told me that a video I made to promote my business “did not really seem like me.” It was the push I needed to help me realize it was true, and that I was lost on how to accomplish the tone I was going for. Shauna was able to offer amazing advice and referred me to some great experts that got me on track.
Critical, or even sometimes negative feedback is always difficult to hear. But if we want to grow and become the best at what we do, it’s completely necessary. Learn to separate the harsh and hurtful criticism from the constructive stuff, and you can use it to your advantage. As for the person offering constructive criticism? Foster a lasting relationship with this person by doing the following:
- Keep in touch.
- Let them know what you are working on or planning and ask for specific help or guidance.
- Remain in the loop of what they are doing and celebrate their successes with them.
- Make sure friendship comes first; you should be having fun together as well so your relationship isn’t just about work. Grab a fun lunch or dinner, or gossip about a shared interest.
As for my experience, I’ve been so thankful for Shauna’s gentle honesty. I realize she is someone I always go to when I have new ideas (which is actually how I became a part of BKS: I shared my expertise on how to be successful as a working parent, and from there it snowballed into joining Best Kept Self). I have to admit, however, I never expected my mentor to be younger than me, and she certainly does not look like Yoda. But when I look back on the impact Shauna has had on me and the advice she has offered, she is definitely providing mentorship.
An insider secret: If someone is keeping you in the loop on what roles are opening, or gives you a heads up when a coworker is leaving, you have some mentoring magic going on. This can happen with a peer or with someone on a level above you, and either way, it’s important to maintain the mentorship. Here are some ways how:
- Reciprocate with your insight.
- Keep it confidential; this person trusts you and thinks highly of you, so don’t go ruining your opportunity by spreading the news to everyone.
- Request a meeting to talk more about the potential opening and express that you are interested in exploring the role. Ask for clarification on if they think you’d be a good fit.
- Ask if this person wants to be involved or not.
- Don’t just focus on yourself; keep in the loop of what they are doing and celebrate their successes.
Traditional, but not overly formal, mentors: These are often current or past managers, and they are typically senior to you. Either you meet on a specific project or maybe you’ve sought them out for their expertise in general. Not only do they interact positively with you, but they also go that extra step to help you succeed. For example, they may ask you about your career goals, if you’re enjoying your current role, and even offer information on what’s going on internally and what positions will be opening up. They may ask you thoughtful questions that reflect your strengths, or they may address possible concerns they may have regarding certain projects.
These are great times to be able to position yourself to talk openly about what you want and to address your own concerns. To foster this relationship further, you can:
- Engage in the open dialogue honestly and professionally. For example, let them know if you’re interested in other projects or positions, and where you think your skills would be a good fit.
- Ask for feedback on where they think you would succeed. Also inquire on how you can position yourself effectively, and which upcoming projects they think would best illustrate your talents.
- Get an honest perspective on what the culture of the team or company is like. For instance, if you value being home in time for dinner, does the company share this value of personal time or are you expected to work late most nights? How do other employees balance home and work? This is a great opportunity to get the inside scoop on divisions, management style, and how these aspects will affect you and your work.
- Ask for an introduction for anyone whom this person sees you connecting with on a professional level.
- Let them know you’re interested in the big picture, like what the mission of the company is and how they’re going about building a brand, and how you can help.
What are your Roles and Responsibilities while Being Mentored?
Mentoring someone, or offering professional advice or constructive criticism, is a step toward building a lasting and balanced relationship. The mentorship shouldn’t be all about the taking, make sure you’re giving too, and that you’re working just as hard as they are to see you succeed. Sheryl Sandberg offers examples of ways in which people have leveraged her knowledge and expertise that was both effective for the person asking and gratifying for her.
- Be respectful of the other person’s time; be prepared with specific requests or questions and be focused during the meeting.
- Certainly be gracious.
- Follow up and let them know the outcome, and thank them again.
- Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know how to proceed with a problem, be honest and open.
- Pass it on; share your knowledge with others in need if asked.
Studies show that mentors were promoted six times more often than those who did not formally mentor. But it doesn’t have to just be about the promotion or the raise. Mentoring is giving back; it can be a rewarding experience that leaves you and the mentored feeling fulfilled.
It doesn’t have to be formal or official, either. Sometimes just offering advice or giving feedback on projects can go a long way. Words of encouragement are also a form of helping others, so try to bolster people’s spirits by letting them know when they’re doing a good job. If your company doesn’t have a mentorship program, you can take the initiative to start one. I am currently leading a team focusing on creating a mentor program as a means of retaining and nurturing top talent. It also connects people on various levels of the company who would not normally interact.
Seeking Organic Mentorship
When I first thought of mentoring, it seemed so daunting, and so official. I pictured a scheduled meeting in a professional environment, one person taking diligent notes while the other talked about how to find a true path in life. I was feeling a little less than inspired and more timid at the prospect of finding someone to establish this sort of relationship with. But the good news is: you can still be mentored without having to have waiting for an organic or assigned mentor relationship, look for mentorship moments.
Look for inspiration in life from everyone you encounter, and treat every experience as an opportunity to learn and as one where you can give insight. Pay special attention to those you can learn the most from, but don’t forget that everyone has unique and rich life experiences, and they may just have the right words of wisdom for you, and they might not look like Yoda. If you truly want to succeed, you don’t have to go at it alone. Find your team of people who have expertise, are open to sharing feedback with you, share your values, and build a support system where you can leverage this network into a rich and robust collection of mentoring moments and relationships to see you through.