How mentoring should actually work (on both sides)

What matters to me

SHRM has been talking about mentorship a good deal recently, including an article on “How To Find The Right HR Mentor” and another on “Elevating The Next Generation Of HR Leaders.”

This actually got me going down memory lane a bit to an article I wrote in October 2015 – seems like forever ago — about how to ask someone to be your mentor.

This is all very near and dear to me. It matters tremendously, and I sometimes wish more of us in executive-level roles would understand and embrace that. We had people who guided us and deflected politics away from us as we rose up. We need to pay that forward.

I work hard at taking time to coach several of my past staff members, startup founders from The Atlanta Tech Village, and recent graduates from my alma mater (UGA).

But… there’s a challenge

This is the challenge that gets in the way for all of us.

Time.

I’m a marketing executive, a wife, and a mother to two teenage boys.

That greatest non-renewable resource we love to talk about is stretched incredibly thin.

But I still make time for mentoring because it matters so much to making sure my E.Y.E.s (Eager Young Employees) are rising up the ranks in the right way, understanding the landscape, the context, how to make tough decisions, how to bounce back from the decisions that backfire, etc. It’s very hard to learn all that on your own. You need someone.

Even though we cherish the idea of the “self-made (wo)man,” the reality is that happens a lot less than we think. We all have mentors in some capacity. And as we achieve our own success, we need to be there for others.

Actually saw one of those happy hour bar chalkboards on Instagram the other day: “Be the person you needed when you were 25.” So true.

How does an executive find the time, though?

The easiest answer: use off-hours. Morning coffee, 7am breakfasts, 6-7pm happy hours, etc.

The harder-to-hear answer: make the damn time.

I know that seems impossible because you’re getting yanked in all these directions with other deadlines and your family obligations (which should be paramount), but think about this: how do you conceptualize your “work time?” Is it from a place of priority, i.e. wanting to do valuable things with your time? Things that move your career and projects forward?

It should be.

Well, here’s something I’ve learned about being a mentor.

As a mentor, I have learned as much by providing guidance to others, as I once benefited from the guidance provided to me. A mentor-mentee relationship should be a mutually beneficial partnership between two people, with implied or outlined obligations to one another.

If you set it up that way — if you’re learning and growing too, and not just imparting advice — then it’s much easier to see the value of the time, make the time, and keep the time.

What about advice for the E.Y.E.s?

A few key points:

  • Don’t be intimidated by someone just because of their title: Hierarchy isn’t going anywhere (sorry Zappos), but executives are still human beings. There might be more touch points before you can reach them, but they’re still a human being and were once eager young employees themselves.
  • Propose weird times: You know how most of your meetings get scheduled between 9 and 4? That’s even more true for busy people, so try to book outside of that window.
  • NEVER ask to be a mentee of someone: This process has to be organic — and, as mentioned above, mutually beneficial. It needs to evolve through conversations and knowledge exchange over some time. You organically become a mentee. You don’t ask.
  • Respect the time window: Great conversations are great conversations and end up going long, but if the window is 30 minutes, initially respect the 30 and start the wrap-up at 24 minutes or so. On the whole, our time is more limited, so respect the window unless there’s a cue from the exec that going long will be fine.
  • Know how to frame up the ask: Mention something specific about our background (“I saw you were at EY for a few years and wanted to see what that experience taught you about working here”) as opposed to the more generic “10 minutes for coffee” or the outright disastrous “I need a mentor.”

 

A broader consideration

Follow this bouncing ball too:

  • Most of the best places to work are rooted in training and development opportunities
  • In a world with tighter budgets, those opportunities are unfortunately fewer and farther between within companies
  • Relationships and mentorships can replace some of those in a more organic way

Also consider:

  • If you work at a place with a fixed leadership team and it’s not a bank with 50 VPs, growth potential (advancement for you) might be limited
  • People, though, want opportunities for growth at their jobs
  • If your boss or chain of command doesn’t want to expand your role or let you learn new things because they need you heads down on your current work…
  • … a mentor or strong relationship can be a way to learn some things you’re curious about outside your department or silo

Relationships are everything in business (and life). No one gets anywhere without them. So make time for this, whether you’re an eager young rising star or a grizzled department leader. We all need to learn and grow from each other for the betterment of our organizations and our careers.

Katharine Mobley on LinkedinKatharine Mobley on Twitter
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I’m an award-winning marketing executive with 20+ years’ experience focused on delivering strategic, data-driven marketing campaigns for technology companies. In my current role, I lead global marketing efforts for First Advantage, the leading global provider of background screening technology.




mm

I’m an award-winning marketing executive with 20+ years’ experience focused on delivering strategic, data-driven marketing campaigns for technology companies. In my current role, I lead global marketing efforts for First Advantage, the leading global provider of background screening technology.

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