Mentoring always came natural to me. My first few gigs post college were teaching animation workshops to kids and grownups alike. As I got on with my career, I dispensed advice to friends and associates who found me increasingly qualified to consult. Eventually, I began teaching at a more professional level, even returning to my alma mater as an adjunct professor. When I decided to form an internship program at my boutique motion graphics company, I built in mentoring as part of the experience. So, I’ve become adept at listening to, empathizing with and questioning others. As well, I now have a broad range of personal experience to draw from for examples and suggestions.
Anywhere along your professional path, you can be a wonderful mentor to someone who’s following your footsteps, no matter how close they are. If you’re still in college, you can help high school students make important decisions. If you’ve just graduated, you’re able to advise on the status of the job field and share your experience of looking. And, as you get older and wiser, you naturally broaden the range of people who can benefit from your knowledge.
Of course, never think that people at or even above your current level aren’t interested in advice. I’ve been an ear to colleagues and even clients when it comes to career decisions and sharing ideas. And following a recent “speed-mentoring” effort where mentee and mentors chat for seven minute micro sessions, I can say with confidence that it’s not the length of a meeting, but rather your ability to tune in and listen that matters. Because, although we each regard ourselves as one of a kind, we are far more similar than that. Our career paths may evolve on different trajectories, but our fears and hopes aren’t so unique, especially within the same field.
Seven minutes spent sorting your own mess means little because we’re too deeply entrenched, but it’s plenty of time to recognize someone else’s big picture.
While the time commitment doesn’t have to be grand, the benefits of mentoring are many, and not just to the mentees. It’s rewarding to recognize your own milestones over the years, and honor the experiences that gave you the confidence to steer someone else’s career. During stretches when your work feels socially irrelevant or creatively challenging, mentoring can do a lot of good by taking focus away from yourself.
Whether I’m speaking, writing or teaching, my words remind me of my beliefs about work, creativity and life in general. During difficult moments, I can resort to my own advice or…[wait for it] I can even open myself to the helpful words of others.
You’re Never Too Old to Get Schooled.
After all, being a mentor doesn’t preclude you from being a mentee. In fact, sometimes you need that impartial push in the right direction.
For instance, my co-founder and I agree on almost everything — until we don’t, and then conflict ensues, unless, of course, we’re too busy for conflict, in which case the topic gets shelved until we come up for air. Unfortunately, these aren’t disagreements about whether or not we need an extra software license or a new coffee maker. The topics at hand are extremely important to our success: brand positioning, marketing strategy, operations. Now, I truly believe that conflict is a good thing if it stems from passion about the issue and genuine desire for good results, which is true in our case. However, it’s often hard to find a balanced solution without a neutral point of view.
Enter our consultant. Have you ever sat down to air out your problems to a close friend? Are you familiar with that moment when you hear yourself speak and realize that the right answer is much closer than you believed? Professional consultation is no different. As we described our concerns in detail to a third party, it was obvious we already knew the right answers. Wherever disagreement arose, we now had a tie-breaking opinion. This didn’t mean we had to take it. More often than not, however, it opened the door to what I call “constructive compromise” – agreeing to a direction while leaving room for adaptation.
He helped us tremendously, simply by calling out our blind spots – very much the same way I called them out for my mentees. Frankly, I was blown away by how many relatively simple answers, solutions, tweaks my “mentor” had. I would have easily recognized them – for someone else! With my own company, I was simply too close to see them.
In the end, we followed about 80 percent of advice we received. We debated amongst ourselves on the other 20, but now, with an extra voice infusing our conversation, it was far easier to come to a mutually accepted middle ground.
That’s the other side of the mentoring coin: you’re never too experienced to get schooled. No matter how advanced your career is, you can benefit from asking for advice, or, yes, for help! Acknowledging a road block or a blind spot is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of wisdom.
If you’re an employee, you can discover valuable information about your current company or, if you’re looking to move on, tips and leads on where to go next. If you let them, others can be far more objective about your experience, portfolio, abilities and your place in the workforce than you. You may be overstating your abilities, or you may be underestimating your worth. Either way, you’ll greatly benefit from an alternate view of yourself – from a perspective other than your own. Both extremes can be detrimental to your career, and most of us suffer from some degree of career dysmorphia.
Now, for entrepreneurs, there is even greater advantage to getting advice. As a solo owner, you can’t have all the answers, and making decisions alone is pressure. If you have partners, it’s unlikely there is unwavering agreement between all parties, in every decision. Too often, this leads to procrastination, guesswork or rushed decisions, all of which are likely to set back your progress.
Your professional trajectory is undeniably nuanced and you may question whether others can relate enough to offer a valuable point of view. But, under the hood, your career or company struggles are less unique than they appear. This doesn’t mean you or your business aren’t special. It just means you’re not alone. That’s great news if you’re willing to learn from the experiences. and mistakes of others. Just don’t forget how much it helps to share yours.