In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes that American culture glorifies individual success stories, while in reality, it is a broader network of relationships and circumstances that shape individual success. I could not agree more with the author’s thinking as an on-going support group of mentors have made my personal and professional goals possible. Having spent almost two decades building a career in financial services and technology while raising a young family and pursuing various interests, I have experienced my fair share of challenges and critical pivotal points. Most professional women and men would find such challenges familiar. Mentors have helped me more effectively work through issues including if and when to go to business school, how to adjust to managing experts who have more years of experience than I did, how and when to “lean in” to advance my career vs. spend more time with family, how to handle a 10 year old’s opinionated teacher who strongly believes that devoted mothers should not work, or how to approach raising money for a new venture.
Creating effective relationships with mentors and mentees has taught me that enduring relationships share the following five characteristics:
Mutual Trust – A quality mentorship relationship is a safe-haven where a mentee can share her mistakes, lack of confidence, doubt and/ or weaknesses while knowing that the discussion would not impact her negatively. A mentor should also be able to trust that a mentee would keep the discussion confidential as often mentors share personal lessons and struggles to inspire the mentee. Building trust takes a long time to develop and thus most truly effective mentorship relationships require a meaningful time investment. At the same, time trust is incredibly easy to destroy irrevocably. Mentors and mentees equally should never use the information they gain from a mentorship relationship for their own benefit or in a way that puts the other person at personal or professional risk. Thus before you engage in a mentorship relationship it is helpful to both spend some time getting to know the person as well as tactfully triangulate his reputation and learning about his integrity.
Improvement Focus: While it feels nice to have someone who cheers you on, the most effective mentors are brutally honest. They would tell you what you need to hear to reach your goals, would point out your blind spots and push you to understand where and why you are making a mistake. The best mentors also possess superb EQ and know how to deliver the message so that it has the highest probability of being accepted. A mentor also provides helpful suggestions about what the mentee can do differently. The most effective mentorship sessions lead to reflection and ultimately positive change. Reciprocally, a good mentee is an open-minded thinker who craves to know what he is missing or how he could improve. To encourage honesty, thank your mentor for telling you the truth and for giving you the difficult messages. That way she knows that her feedback is welcome.
Clarity of Goal and Expectations: We all have relentless competition for our time. You want to make sure that if you are going to add being a mentor or mentee to your To Do list that you make it worth your while. The best way to do this is to be clear on what you are each trying to achieve (your goal), and what you are willing to invest in order to achieve that goal. Jeff Hunter, creator of Talent Architecture and frequent advisor to CEO’s and entrepreneurs says “You shouldn’t rush into it. A good mentor will spend time getting to know what the mentee is like, what they want and what they really need. Once you share an understanding you both have to seriously reflect on whether this is going to be worth your time. Will you each bring the openness, attention and dedication to the relationship that will be required to achieve your goals? Otherwise you end up making each other feel good but the meaningful change never happens.”
Symbiotic Nature — Effective mentorship relationships enrich both people as a matter of course. It is clear why mentees benefit from a relationship with an effective mentor. But why do mentors devote valuable time to mentoring? I have found it equally enriching being a mentor as well as being a mentee. Above all it is incredibly emotionally rewarding to help young people. At the same time unexpected opportunity to learn new things arise from being a mentor. Mentoring young people for example has helped me stay connected to technology innovation, music and social trends which provides me with a fresh perspective and fosters creativity. Additionally being a mentor has helped me identify talent and be able to build effective teams quickly when the need arises. It is therefore not surprising that one of the most prominent female executives in financial services, Eileen Murray, co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates and a mentor that has impacted my development dramatically, spends a significant part of her time devoted to mentoring and considers developing talent an essential part of being an effective leader and manager.
Understanding of Limitations – It is important to have realistic expectations from a mentorship relationship. A good mentor has limitations in their knowledge and experience and does not shy away from admitting these and pointing the mentee in the right direction instead. Another barrier to effective mentorship relationship is ego. On the side of the mentee, ego can prevent her from learning or even from asking for input or advice because she is uncomfortable or embarrassed to admit that she does not know. The Fast Company recently published an article: What Happens When You Put Aside Your Ego and Take Your Mentor’s Advice: “It would be a foolish mistake and a missed opportunity not to value the advice, experience, and knowledge a mentor can offer. Put your ego aside; be a sponge and soak up as much wisdom as possible.” On the side of the mentor, ego may prevent them from having their mentee’s best interest at heart. Stay away from mentors who are afraid of you growing to your maximum potential or becoming more successful than them.
Additionally to create effective mentorship relationships, I had to let go of some stereotypes about what mentorship is:
The traditional definition of a mentor is someone who is typically older and more experienced in your field of work. While that often is true, some of the most impactful mentorship relationships I have fostered transcend that definition. Mentors can also be peers or even people younger and/ or less professionally senior than you who possess a skill or capability uniquely suited to help address specific problems. A particularly talented younger individual who possessed an uncanny ability to perceive what people are like has been instrumental in helping grow my people assessment skills or triangulate my judgement. An older but not necessarily more professionally senior woman who herself has trail-blazed the path of a financial technology executive and a working mother was always able to provide the right perspective and wisdom about how to deal with the specific challenges of raising children, such as optimising child care, selecting schools, or overseeing homework from the office.
Second, mentorship is typically associated with the professional sphere and mentors are often advised to be aware of boundaries and focus strictly on business challenges. However, in my experience such guidance is inadequate and misleading. In the HBR blog, The Myth of Work-Life Balance, John Beeson challenges the notion of pursuing work-life balance and instead describes a careful on-going prioritization of what goals to focus on when – be it career, family, volunteer pursuits or even hobbies and the need to design a support network that addresses both family and professional challenges. Similarly, good mentors help their mentees pursue self-actualization wholistically at and outside of work. For example, when I was pregnant with my second child and working, a senior professional woman mentor re-focussed from career development advice to ensuring that I was healthy and rested — something that on my own I might have ignored. Of course, as a mentor or mentee use common sense and good judgement where the boundaries lie when advising others on topics outside of the professional sphere.