by Dana Theus
Someone once gave me the greatest complement. She said, “Since you’re my mentor I think you can help me with this.” Until that moment I had no idea I was her mentor! From that day forward, I started paying more attention to my interactions with her, being more clear explaining my thinking, being more conscious of giving her explicit feedback. And something else happened in the process – I became more conscious of my own leadership style and began to improve it.
Almost ten years later, this young woman has been promoted a few times and is now a strong part of my network – helping me at least as much as I ever helped her. Thank goodness I woke up and started mentoring her!
Self-Awareness Is An Awesome Leadership Skill
The first reason to mentor is somewhat selfish. If you read the leadership literature, you’ll see that being a life-long learner is a critical skill, but the best insights don’t come from books. Watching how effective your leadership style is and adjusting your behavior to achieve maximum results is the real work here. This requires self-awareness and feedback. But how many employees are really giving you good feedback? Most are careful to the point of silence about giving the boss insight into his or her own behavior, and most of them aren’t that skilled at giving feedback anyway (this is something they’re learning from you).
A mentee is someone you know is looking to you for help, and you can easily ask them how helpful you’re being. Elicit additional questions from them to help you gauge how clearly you communicate. Watch the results they achieve following your advice (or not) and learn from that experience how you can improve your guidance. Ask them for feedback directly as well. In developing a relationship where open discussion is welcome, they are likely to respect you enough to tell you what they really think so you can see yourself through other eyes. No need to feel vulnerable to their opinion, they’ve already chosen you as their mentor!
Watching how a mentee takes in your insights and works with them will also give you deep insight into the value of what you know. Things you take for granted have great value to someone with less experience working to improve their business and leadership skills. Mentees are a great way to learn to appreciate your own wisdom and knowledge. In appreciating it you can pass it on to even more people more consciously.
Finally, your mentees will teach you things they know that you don’t. Sometimes this has to do with their age group, but often it’s more personal than that. Having someone who trusts you share their worldview with you can be a gift that will help your broaden your perspective, and being a life-long learner this is a handy dynamic!
There’s No Other Way For Them To Learn How To Succeed At Your Level
The second reason is not selfish at all. Just like hiring managers often complain that kids out of college don’t know how to function in a professional setting, some executives also complain that there is so little promotable talent “out there.” I don’t believe this is ever the case, but I do believe that helping people understand what an executive needs to do isn’t something you learn in books or even through osmosis. The problems the executive team takes on are simply different than those newer managers struggle with. Executives worry about more strategic issues and their functional expertise often takes a backseat to their ability to make decisions and create opportunities. Since this is a fundamentally different process than “doing the work” in a functional area of expertise, the best way for budding execs to learn these skills is from the people currently in the job.
One woman said it this way, “I have an MBA and studied strategic business issues theoretically, but going for the C-suite I’d never hired anyone for the position even close to what I was being promoted into. I needed people to help me understand how a COO really succeeds so I could develop my skills and interview appropriately.”
Basically, they don’t teach the skills that separate the leaders from the doers in business school, and to the extent that they do your employees still need to become life-long learners and internalize the lessons that will make them successful. When you mentor, you guide them farther along this journey and in the process help create the class of leaders who will make your job easier and ultimately succeed you.
Good for you. Good for them. Win-win.
What’s your experience with mentoring? Have you noticed the benefits of having a mentee? What else can you tell people considering taking on more (or some) mentees?
Dana Theus, Leadership and Management Consultant and Founder of InPower Women
Dana Theus is a leadership and management consultant helping companies establish gender-balanced leadership teams that improve business results. Her background is in marketing, business development and strategic planning. I have great admiration for her work and entrepreneurial spirit.
She is a doer, eager to help others. I absolutely concur with Dana’s belief that women strengthen an organization’s leadership with their qualities and particular strengths, and applaud her forming InPower Women.
Dana is a graduate of UCLA and earned her Masters in Communication from USC. She now lives in Arlington, VA with her husband and two sons.