Making the Most of Mentoring

Why mentorship helps both mentor and mentee.

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One highly underutilized opportunity for professional development is the mentorship. To some, the notion is quaint. Antiquated. To others, seeking help is akin to an admission of weakness. Complicating matters, everyone is stretched thin in our overconnected and hypercompetitive world. Globalization and our perpetual tethering to the Internet means that our office hours can virtually be 24/7. 

While most of us feel overcommitted to the office, friends and family already, mentorship is worth the time investment.  That is, working with a mentor and mentoring someone else.

President of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, Reed Brockman, writes,

My field always had a longstanding tradition of mentorship, and as far as I can tell, the past century is the first to put this tradition to the test. I am in no way trying to say that our culture has taken a wrong turn. I am just stating cultural shifts. Apprenticeship and mentoring is not nearly as predominant in present-day culture and similarly not the nature of the rungs in corporate ladders.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

It's fairly obvious why having a good mentor is advantageous. Less obvious are the benefits of being a good mentor. First, let's outline what constitutes a good mentor:

  • Knowledgeable: S/he shares his/her experiences and lessons learned.
  • Invested: S/he is interested in your success and actively guides you. While the relationship is not forever, s/he should be willing to commit to several months with you,  checking in at least once every three weeks.
  • Trustworthy: S/he provides a safe space for you to confide your concerns and questions. His/her responses are reliably given with your best interest in mind.

Ratings analyst and NYU Fellow  Dean Landsman explains,

With mentoring comes responsibility. The Mentor imparts knowledge, of course, but also manner, style, and method. Respect, too, is incumbent upon the Mentor: to respect those who are being mentored, to be giving while imparting direction… The core objective is to inspire and guide the Mentee (or protégé) to fulfill their potential. It is essential for wisdom and know-how from the Mentor to be accompanied by support, and appreciation of the Mentee.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

I have had a very rewarding relationship with bestselling author  Brian D'Amato and his family for more than a decade. I worked as his intern during the second semester of my senior year at Hunter College High School. We lost touch afterwards until I graduated from Wellesley College and moved to Hong Kong for work, reconnecting only after I returned to the States. 

Together, Brian and I worked side by side in his office. He, on his second novel, " In the Courts of the Sun." I, on my thesis for Dartmouth College. While generous with his resources, I most cherished Brian's willingness to share his vast knowledge on art, culture and literature. He provided a space where I felt safe to challenge his views and ask any question. In fact, one of my favorite compliments was him stating, "You are intellectually curious." More than being acknowledged in Brian's trilogy, I value the three hour conversation we had one winter night in front of a crackling fire. Major topics included philosophy, luck and game theory.           

Mentorship is about intellectual growth in the context of professional and/or personal development. Brockman, who is also on the Massachusetts Council of STEM Professional Societies, states,

Suffice to say, right now not only is there a lack of mentoring from a very young age and through entire career paths, more needs to be done to even let young people about careers in general. Moreover, those with both technical skills and wisdom to match need to be held in high esteem and encouraged to share their knowledge as opposed to being pushed into roles that are more administrative in nature.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Balancing The Balancing the Federal Budget Be a Top Policy Priority?]

Contrary to common thought, mentees are not the only beneficiaries of mentorships. Mentoring is a worthwhile deed because, done well, it uplifts everyone involved. Serving as a resource for others re-energizes and reminds one of his/her own mission. In guiding others, one re-articulates his/her own journey. It's a clarifying exercise. To understand oneself, explain to others. 

And if you provide a safe space for your mentee to ask questions and comment, you may find yourself challenged on why things are done a certain way or how decisions are made –  questions for which answers may have been taken for granted too long ago to remember original motivations. There is great value in new perspectives from honest allies. Embrace that value. If you do, everyone wins. And everyone learns.

As Claire Crossley tweeted to me, "@Lisa03755 When, years later, you find yourself asking, 'what would so-so say or do?' Hallmark & impact of an awesome #mentor!"  Crossley spent 20 years in the healthcare industry and completed a Masters of education degree with research focused on leadership & mentoring, adults and physicians specifically. She is currently a business owner who mentors single moms and youth.  She adds, "When you mentor and share stories & experiences with others, you leave that person with two experiences; theirs and now yours." 

Mentorship should not be a one-way flow of information and value. Don't simply dictate.  Let go of your ego. Be humble and be willing to grow together. While one party may have more knowledge and experience, make the relationship more meaningful by fostering an atmosphere of collaboration.

Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross-platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business.