You always need a Champion!

Stepping into my first EMEA role made me look back at where I was few years ago. Across last few years I had a very clear career path in my head. At first glance highly ambitious (some would say – unrealistic) but on the other hand – looking at where I am today – clearly achievable.

On my way I have met few assholes depreciating my role and input, couple not too helpful people, a bunch of smart and  supportive team players and experts and 3 unique mentors that have turned my thinking upside down on quite few things and helped me to get where I am today.

As a beginner in the corporate world with a “I will rule the world” attitude I didn’t think that mentoring can be an influencing tool that can turn around anyone’s career. How talking to a senior guy can be contributing to my development? If I want to achieve anything I need to go after it on my own, I thought. Only after several years of being mentored I know how wrong I was, hence this article being written as a tribute to mentoring at the turning point (I hope!) in my career.

What’s mentoring?

Mentoring is a relationship between two individuals, where the more experienced colleague shares his/her knowledge and understanding of work or organization with a less experienced colleague in order to develop him/her. It can be a more informal type of relationship that allows the mentee to reach out to the mentor when and as it is needed rather than having a regular session. Agenda of the relationship is mainly driven by the mentee and aimed at developing long term strategic skills that will be applicable to usually leadership roles. The duration of the relationship is not defined, often moves into friendship.

One thing to note is, that mentoring is a mutual relationship, although you undertake the role of mentee, your mentor takes the benefit of learning also from you.

I have always  perceived my mentors as guarding angels – being there for me whenever I need them.

What mentoring is not?

Mentoring is different from coaching. Coaching is much more formalized, usually has a defined end and set of goals that are aimed at specific aspect of job or performance improvements.  Coach is bringing structure, instructions, assessment and monitoring tools, expectations on very specific measurable outcomes; whereas mentoring is introducing much softer approach relaying on self-motivation and relationship between individuals.

Mentoring is also not management. Management agenda is led by the manager and its focus is mainly on performance of the individual.  The scope of that relationship is usually narrowed to skills required for a specific role.

How to find a mentor?

Finding a good mentor is hard! Here are some tips on how to find one:

  • Official mentoring – Some companies have formalized mentoring programs. Although I am not a fan of those (they usually are too formalized and require some reporting and success measurement), you can definitely find some good people there to help you develop.
  • Recommendation – ask colleagues, your manager whether they know someone who would be willing to take up on a mentoring relationship. However in this case you usually need to specifically know what type of resource, skill and knowledge you are looking for.
  • A “click” – for me the best way to get a great mentoring relationship. If on some random occasion you are talking with a Senior colleague, you clearly feel a connection with and you have an impression you could learn a lot from that person or there is a person you admire – take your chance, ask whether he/she would be willing to become your mentor.

I was often told that you should look for mentor outside of your business line. That never worked for me. I have been in mentoring relationships that completely failed as we couldn’t find the same language and topics that we both relate to. You definitely need to look for people different than you as that will open in front of you perspectives that you haven’t taken into consideration before. But that doesn’t mean this cannot be someone from you closest surrounding. Actually, if you are at the early stages of your career I would recommend you finding a mentor from your direct business line. That will make the conversations much easier.

The photo dates back to 2014. Piece of Starbucks napkin used by Paul Larken (my first mentor) to write “You always need a champion”, as a reminder in case of “doubt in myself” days.

How to build a strong relationship with your mentor?

  • Get to know each other – understand who you are as a person, how you operate and what each of you can bring to the table
  • Don’t rush things – mentoring is aimed at long term development. Things won’t change overnight. You will be in growing pains for months if not years before you understand how much you achieved on the way.
  • Be prepared – be ready with agenda, topics you want to talk about, conversations you want to have. It doesn’t have to be formalized but in order to get the best out of it – it does need to be somewhat structured
  • You don’t have to know what you want but you need to seek for it – it’s not about knowing what you want to achieve at the end of your mentor-ship. It’s about the road you are taking to get there. Your goals might change as you go but the thing you learn, how you approach people and situations, how you become a better team manager, leader is what matters.
  • Build trust – mentor-ship is a unique type of relationship in organization that builds it fundamentals on trust. Whatever is said or done within mentoring relationship it stays there. Both mentor and mentee can be open in their opinions and conversations in full trust that nothing will be revealed.
  • Challenge your mentor – don’t be afraid to be demanding. If you have any expectations, share them in a transparent way.
  • Stop the mentoring – You should withdraw from a mentor-ship if you feel it already realized its purpose or if you don’t feel the mentor is a good fit and the relationship doesn’t bring any value. Don’t waste yours and mentor’s time – move on.

Benefits out of mentorship

  • Being challenged – if you chose a right mentor you will definitely be challenged by him/her. Challenged on way of thinking, approaching things but also way of operating as a person in overall. A good mentor will also put you in front of situations and tasks that are new to you, stretch you and put out of your comfort zone.
  • Sounding board – Running your ideas pass someone with a different perspective or way of thinking can be very refreshing and show you alleys you have not discovered before. This is why for mentors you should seek people that think differently than you.
  • Opening doors –  a good mentor should use his influence to introduce you to senior people, put you forward/expose to some opportunities and challenging pieces of work that can grow and expose your skillset and potential.
  • Guidance and support – a good mentor should guide you via different development topics and support in difficult/challenging situations. He/she should always have time for you when you really need it.

Becoming a mentor

I don’t believe that mentoring several people at once can be effective to any of the parties (unless that’s your only job!). I have seen people claiming they mentor 10-20 people. How can that work? How well the mentor can actually understand what you need, what are your daily struggles and how to best guide you through them if he/she doesn’t have time for you?

Mentoring is hard work, a commitment to the person and organization that you want to help someone realize his/her potential by investing your time and effort into it. If you are lucky to get good mentors you will very quickly see the value of those relationships for both mentor and mentee, at some point you will be mature enough to move away from a mentee role and take on the role of mentor. That’s the best testimonial of mentoring goals being realized in you.

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