To be or not to be… a Mentor!
When most of us think about a Mentor, we think about a formalized relationship, where an experienced person helps a newbie learn the ropes. We expect formal relationships, often employers and professional organizations institute or even mandate them for a specific purpose. But as Betty-Ann Heggie so aptly pointed out last week at a talk to the Business and Professional Women of Saskatoon, this is a very narrow definition of a very important concept. We all work with different types of mentors every day. If we don’t recognize the support these people provide, then how can we fully realize the benefits of a good mentor? The first step is to identify types of mentors you might encounter through a week.
What is a mentor?
Mentors can be many things:
- CoachA coach is the most common form of mentor, offering advice on how to deal with a particular situation. Most formal mentor-mentee relationships fall into this category, but we also receive coaching from others throughout our day: the friends who join us for a glass of wine while we “vent” about a difficult co-worker; the spouse who helps us to plan our next career move; and even our kids telling us they don’t like our parenting style!
- Sponsor or ChampionSponsors are the people who work on our behalf to recognize the value we bring. Their efforts bring us the killer projects that the other project managers were all vying for; the unexpected thank-yous for efforts you though nobody noticed; and even career advancements you might not otherwise consider. Sometimes we are not even aware that this type of mentorship is happening!
- CollectiveWhen we use discussion boards to ask technical questions, ask questions about soft skills in LinkedIn Groups, or read blog posts from thought leaders, we are seeking mentorship from people we might not even know. The evolution of technology has given us an easy channel to some of the most helpful mentors out there, if we know where to find them.
It is important not to confuse a mentor with a “boss”. Bosses tell us what to do, and very often, how to do it. Mentors offer support, advise, and insight. Someone who oversees your work is usually a boss, but the best oversight comes from the bosses who approach the role as a mentorship opportunity.
Why be a Mentor?
As a project leader, you decide whether to be a mentor or just a boss. It is easy to see the value that mentors offer to mentees, but why would you go out of your way to be a mentor? Isn’t that just going to take more time out of an already busy day? Short answer: NO; you will reap far more for your investment today if you lead from a point of education rather than direction. Remember that the person who makes themselves invaluable to avoid being fired can never get promoted either. It is your job to give your people the tools to do the best job they can. If you sit on your skills and never share them, how can they do their best work? And how will they ever make do without you?
When I was 25, I had the opportunity to work with a company that valued mentorship. Managers would assign Mentors or “Team Leads” to working groups to help them work through more problems on their own, empowering them to make decisions without escalating. When I got bored with my role, HR assigned me not one but two mentors to help me figure out what I wanted to do next. Apparently, they liked me, because one of the mentors I was lucky enough to work with was the General Manager. These two mentors held nothing back, but let me shadow them in any part of their day. When the two of them became Project Managers for our company’s major merger with another software company, they made me their Communications Lead. Their complete openness let me see how much I loved project management, when other companies of the day would have said I was too young or inexperienced to take on the responsibilities they assigned to me. The company benefited from discovering a talented young person who took a problem-solving approach to any work.
My Marketing role in the combined organization evolved into one of internal communication and coordination. I met with project teams throughout the organization, sharing what was happening with other projects, and seeking opportunities for improved collaboration across the organization. In one day, I could be in meetings to discuss new software components, sales strategies, business system design, contract negotiations, and technical team-building. The breadth of my involvement with that organization stuns me to this day; I learned so much about every aspect of a $300 million international software development company, and discovered my passion for improving the ways that people work together. I will ever be grateful to all my mentors from Hyprotech, but especially Rob Eastick and James McGill. I only hope that one day I can have as big of an impact on a mentees life.