Posted by: Christine Donovan | June 3, 2009

The Power and Privilege of a Mentor

I’ve been very lucky in my life,  and wouldn’t know where to begin in describing all the blessings.  So much of what I’ve experienced was due to pure luck.  I certainly didn’t orchestrate many of the people and experiences that came my way, but for whatever reason, they did… and my life has been the better for it.

One of those fortunate “breaks” happened to me in the form of a mentor… well, several mentors to be exact. 

When I was young and just starting out in my career, I had no clue of what direction to take, or even how to begin the journey.  The idea of a “career” seemed overwhelming… I didn’t completely know what I wanted to do, or even what I was qualified for.

But I was incredibly LUCKY to have encountered a few people along the way who must have seen some quality in me that I didn’t see myself.  They took me by the hand, guided me along, gave me sage advice and even helped to open doors.

They were my mentors, and I wish everyone could have the experience of a wise and helpful guide to warn you of danger ahead, pull you up when you’ve fallen, and help you work through the major decisions of life.

In Corporate America today, many companies have launched formal mentoring programs in which more experienced employees are paired with newer staff members (or “up and comers”).  The mentor and “mentee” are given some training and some outlines to follow and they are sent on their way – with the assumption that a close and bonding relationship will begin.

Sometimes it does, but based on my own experiences and those I’ve read about, such formal mentoring programs don’t always work so well.  It’s something about the formal structure – the “assigned” mentor to student… that seems to inhibit the process.

Research has shown that the most valuable and effective mentoring relationships happen spontaneously… a certain chemistry occurs between two people and a friendship evolves (as with most friendships).  If the two people are in the same profession, company, professional organization, and if one is senior to the other, a mentoring relationship may begin.

If you are just beginning your career/life journey, or even if you’ve been on the path for a few years, I would strongly suggest you find yourself a mentor.

How?  You say… “I don’t know anybody I could ask to be my mentor.”

If you say that, then you really need a mentor, because my guess is that excuses and helplessness are part of your persona.  And a mentor would help you see how you get in your own way.

If you had a mentor, I’m sure she would tell you that to succeed in anything requires thinking more broadly, outside the box and over the horizon.  If you limit yourself to who you currently know, or assume that no one would want to be your mentor (I’ve heard that one before) then you’re right… finding a mentor may be impossible for you.

But if you are willing to look beyond your immediate circle of acquaintances, have the confidence to approach a stranger, and apply your creativity to meet and form new relationships, then I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t find a mentor.  And it could change your life.

I knew nothing about “mentoring” per se when I was coming up the corporate ladder, but I did have the sense to realize I needed the help and advice of people more experienced than me.

One day I attended a “Women in Management” seminar in California, and heard a speaker the likes of whom I’d never heard before.  The speaker was Sheila McKenna, director of the personnel division for Orange County, California (The “OC”).   I realize now that she was the first motivational speaker I’d ever seen and so I was greatly impressed.  From her presentation I was inspired, gained new confidence, and learned some important new thinking about how to succeed in life.

That night I decided to write her a note, assuming it would probably go nowhere, if she even received it.  But I was so inspired by her speech that I had to let her know how she had touched my life.

So I wrote a few lines about how much she had encouraged me; about how, as a new supervisor myself, I was challenged by my daily responsibilities, had no training to supervise anything, but was expected to manage tasks such as budgeting, hiring, scheduling, problem solving and all the other skills expected of leaders (Well, I didn’t tell her all of that; I’m just giving you the whole picture). 

The truth was, I was lost and I needed someone (outside the company) that I could go to in confidence and trust.

I didn’t think I’d hear back from Sheila (she was so high up in the organization that I was sure my note would be opened and tossed aside by an assistant) but lo and behold a few days later she called and said she’d been touched by my note.  She invited me to lunch the next week… and from there was born a mentoring relationship. 

For the next few years, I called her when I was dealing with a business decision or career crisis (I didn’t over do it, and I reserved my calls for the most important issues).  She never hesitated to offer help and encouragement, and when I look back on it now, I know I could have never survived that time without her.  Of course, I made it a point to consistently thank her and let her know what a great help she was to me… mentors need feedback too!  

Unfortunately I lost touch with Sheila when she retired early and took off to travel the world, and I often wonder how she’s doing.  I’d love to tell her how I “turned out” and make sure she knows what a great help and influence she was for me in my life.

Along the way I had other mentors, who I will talk about in later posts.  And I’ve realized the past few years that many people who have not had the privilege of a mentor have probably had struggles in their careers or in their lives that they might not have had otherwise.  

Mentors can see obstacles before we do, steer us around them and make our road a little less bumpy.  Mentors share the benefit of their own mistakes that can help us avoid the same.  Mentors see us with objective eyes, and while a good mentor gives us constructive feedback, he/she is also aware of our talents and points them out to us.  Our mentors tell others about us, help us build our personal brand and reputation, and open doors to new opportunities.

So a good mentor is part friend, part coach, counselor, psychic, and a teacher.  Good mentors are tough as well as supportive.  They are those rare people who we can TRUST, and yet from whom we accept needed criticism… because we know they are looking out for our own best interest.

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