Winston Churchill famously said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Nowhere is this statement more appropriate than when discussing the importance of mentoring. Defining the role of a mentor has always been a little challenging because it differs from situation to situation based on the needs of the mentor and mentee. But putting the details aside, a mentor typically is expected to be an experienced and trusted advisor with specific knowledge who enters into a relationship to help someone benefit from their expertise.
As women, I am convinced that we have a greater obligation to help other women as they pursue their careers when we have the ability to do so.
I also believe the focus of a mentoring relationship should be on the skills or talent of the mentors but not necessarily their age. In other words, a mentor does not have to be older than the mentee to be effective. In today’s rapid-paced world, many seasoned, senior leaders are turning to their younger employees and colleagues, asking for their advice or insights on issues where they excel. These include areas like technology, social media, team building and more. The criteria for mentoring is not about how old you are but rather the level of knowledge you possess on distinctive subject matter.
There are some keywords and attributes that help me understand mentoring: supporting, coaching, motivating, advising, and training. Taken together these words create a framework for a solid and successful experience that encompasses a broader approach. The power we have as women mentors usually begins with the life lessons and our willingness to share them.
Most of the time it is anticipated the goal of a mentor is to impart information and the goal of the mentee is to be open to learning and absorbing new ideas that will help her grow professionally and personally. But in reality I believe both parties have much to learn from each other when they engage in a mentoring scenario. I say this because I have experienced this phenomenon myself.
Earlier in my career when I volunteered to be mentor, I did so with the conviction that I had a responsibility to share my own experiences and help someone get a head start on their own journey. With that in mind, I was proud to share ideas, best practices and real-world feedback from my own experiences. Some of the mentoring situations were formal, conducted with start and end dates and established goals. But this was not always the case. Over the years I also found myself mentoring in more informal settings, with ad hoc discussions and abbreviated interactions. Both worked based on the needs of my mentees.
Regardless of how long or how formal, whether loosely scheduled or consistently spaced, the bottom line of a mentoring relationship remained the same. I saw mentoring as something to do because of my status as a woman leader. I saw it as something to do for someone else’s benefit.
I’ve learned since then that there are many terrific reasons for being a mentor. What I now realize is that there are as many advantages to the mentor as the mentee. Once I started looking at mentoring through a new lens I noticed how many benefits I enjoyed. It was no longer something I was doing only for someone else but something I was doing for myself as well.
So what can you expect as a mentor?
The first, and I think most obvious benefit for me as a woman mentor, is that I have had the chance to consider (and reconsider) the culmination of all my experiences and leverage them to influence and shape another person. It has given me a chance to identify better ways for me to behave as a role model. Thinking about setting an example encouraged me to consider taking a new direction myself.
The second advantage is that being a mentor puts me in the role of teacher. To do this well, I need to remain current. I have been forced to hone my skills, stay at the cutting edge and ensure that my insights and viewpoints are relevant. After all, no mentee would have confidence in a mentor who is rusty or out of touch. Since the definition of a mentor is a “trusted” advisor, my judgment needs to be sound and my credibility high for me to be trusted with this responsibility. To offer insights that are worthwhile I need to continue absorbing new ideas.
The third reason I like being a mentor is the most selfish of all. Simply put, it feels good to share my gifts, to help uncover someone else’s potential and to be there to help them overcome some of the inevitable land mines they could face. There is a certain satisfaction that I get when I see my mentees grow and learn and evolve into true professionals with the assistance of my tutelage. If you, too, have successes to share, I advise you to turn your attention to helping someone else, just because you can.
My fourth and last point is that, based on my own experiences as a mentor, I know that I have easily learned as much from the relationship as my mentees have. I guarantee that if you become a mentor you will absolutely find yourself getting much more from your mentee than you could ever have expected. This about-face should come as no surprise. After all, as you and your mentee develop a deep and strong connection, your conversations will naturally become more of a two-way communication. What starts from a format based on you imparting knowledge shifts from you talking, teaching and inspiring to one in which your mentees become comfortable enough to share suggestions and observations of their own.
The longer the relationship continues, the more likely it is to transform from teacher and student to one in which there is a meaningful up-and-back communication between you. Swapping roles and switching gears keeps both parties thinking, seeking fresh ideas and reinforcing the importance of lifelong learning from a variety of sources.
When asked to be a mentor, I am sure that most of us say “yes” because we want to do the right thing. We want to be helpful, make introductions to key resources and look for ways to transfer our wisdom to others to help guide them and nurture them.
But as a mentor, what I suggest here is that you should be prepared for those times when you find you have become the mentee. So I invite you to embrace the role — and the role reversal. As you encourage someone to open her mind, open your mind too and learn to motivate as well as be motivated. To be the best teacher/mentor possible, you must also expand and evolve yourself from teacher to a student.
Let me know if you are a mentor or a mentee. Please share what your experience has been. Do you have any good ideas to share with others? I am happy to print your ideas in my column next month so please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sally Glick is principal of the firm and chief growth strategist at Sobel & Co. LLC and president of the Association for Corporate Growth in New Jersey.