Friday, 28 August 2015

Stop Looking For a Mentor...and Start Building Relationships

Everybody wants a mentor. And I believe that everyone deserves one.  
Everybody deserves a champion, someone who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be. Some of us scale high and low looking for that revered mentor, but in my search for a mentor I have realised that we are quite often searching for the wrong thing…

People think a mentor is your perfect match of what job/title/career you want, and that’s what everyone looks for. But in this pursuit the key to mentoring that we never discuss is the value and importance of human connection; relationships. Because as James Colmer said “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship’. It’s not about the person with the title, job, or even experience. It’s about the relationship.

Mentoring is the end goal…not the start

A few years ago when I was 23, I found myself as a graduate Engineer at a great company, and was also running an award-winning social business that I had founded which was empowering women in India. I was by all accounts doing well, yet I felt incredibly lost and unsure. I had met some of the most influential people in business, I had an enviable rolodex of business cards of people whom had offered support and advice…yet I still felt alone. I valued the integrity, knowledge & guidance these professionals were able to offer, but I was lacking the critical element of any learning… genuine connection.

I craved mentorship yet couldn’t understand why the networks I was building weren’t really working for me? So I decided to stop the “will you be my mentor?” approach for a while, and just start being present to embracing the learning opportunities all around me. When I took this new approach I not only unexpectedly met my soon-to-be-mentor, but I also realised that I too had been looking for the wrong thing all along…

I realised that I had been looking for an end result without understanding the beginning.
You see, mentoring never starts as mentoring…that’s what it ends-up, but what it starts with is a connection. Lunch, a coffee, or even a conversation. It then manifests into a relationship. Not all connections develop into relationships, and not all relationships into mentoring, and this is important; If you have to force it, leave it alone. Relationships, mentors, ponytails. Just leave it. But if you do get the 1 in 10 connection that develops into a relationship you will then maybe one day realize, without even noticing, that you have developed the revered mentor relationship.
I have had formal ‘mentors’ in mentor programs who sat and gave me all manner of advice and time. But no matter how hard we tried, it just didn’t work. Not because they didn’t have the experience or wisdom, but because there was no genuine authentic mutual connection. It wasn’t about the person or the job. It was about the relationship.

So stop looking for a long-term commitment or an official “mentor”, and start building a relationship with people you admire, and who admire you. It will take you so much farther.

Aggie and I

I remember the first time I met my would-be-mentor. She smiled as she shook my hand. Not the uncomfortable smile of a stranger or the trained smile of a salesperson, when the eyes don’t quite smile the same way as the mouth, but a smile of genuine warmth and welcome that was utterly enveloping. I had unexpectedly been invited to a lunch and was incredibly nervous as a young graduate about meeting a HR Director in the company… but I never thought it would lead to one of my most valued and treasured relationships. Over the course of the meal we got chatting, and she took a genuine interest in getting to know me, asking about my social business and passions. Although we had just met, I had the uncanny sense that this new acquaintance truly cared about me (the low-on-the-food-chain graduate) and my goals.

Despite being scheduled around the clock, she sent me a note a few weeks later to check in on how things were going. Just like the first time I met her, I was overwhelmed by the fact that she cared. It was then months of catch-ups, emails and conversations before we even mentioned the words ‘mentor’…after all, we were stereotypically the most unusual of pairings: she was HR and I was an engineer…but it wasn’t about the job title or career, it was about developing the mutual relationship of respect, openness and trust.

Over the past few years Aggie and I have caught up over everything from handbags to business plans and careers. We begin every conversation as we do so many times before, with friendly banter which soon turns to deep discussion. She has a very calming influence, allowing me to see clearly through otherwise stressful and confusing stages in my professional and personal life. The conversations exude that feeling that, not only am I absorbing the wisdom and experience of this seasoned professional, but that she is absorbing and learning too. The fact we are both different means there’s space for us both to learn and grow off each other. It feels like a mutually beneficial relationship. At least that’s what I hope… I hope that my mentor gets something out of the relationship, that just maybe, she learns something from me…

It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes an army to raise a young woman

Throughout my career, I’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom and experiences of mentors. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I think in this day-and-age it takes an army to raise a young woman. Different people see different aspects of us as we progress in our careers and can help us handle the opportunities and challenges along the way. However the key to any good mentor is someone who helps you become more of who you already are — not to make you more like them.

Looking back I have had more mentors that I can mention. Some were around briefly, others I still have. Some mentors test you, some teach you, some I can call when I am a tearful mess because somethings happened and I don’t know what to do next… But most important is the ones that bring out the best in you. Those are the special few that I treasure and carry with me everyday (and I hope I always will!)

My thanks to my ‘army’

Looking back, my 10th grade science teacher Mrs Munro was perhaps the first adult who treated me like a peer, who set expectations of me and believed I was capable of more. It helped me come out of my shell and is the very reason I developed a love of science and became an engineer.

Aggie, my ‘official mentor’, is one of the few people I can honestly say I wholeheartedly want to be like as a leader. She is a HR director, so I don’t aspire to her job, but if I can become the type of person and leader she is I will have succeeded. She is the one who has not only taught me nearly everything I know about managing people and the importance of being present, but was also the one who picked me up and gently steered me through the grief of my father’s death. She expertly treads the line between, mentor, colleague, friend, 2nd-mother, Yoda, Mr Miyagi… you name it! Whenever I am thoughtful and present, I am reflecting her teachings. Whenever I am angry, impatient or arrogant, I’m falling short.

My other ‘Yoda’ is Kathy. Kathy was the one who not just believed in my value and potential, but was willing to go out on a limb on my behalf. She listens yet analyses, and understands my strengths and weaknesses better than I do most times. She demonstrates aspirational leadership through her own actions, all the while guiding me as I navigate the perilous ascent up the career ladder. She not only saw me to the threshold of power; she opened the door. She may be on the other side of the world, but whenever I have a problem or a question, she will find the time to tell me where to look, without ever telling me what to see…

Rachel; is the sound business advice when I need a caring ear and logical head.

Elizabeth, the firm supporter when I feel just too small for the seemingly insurmountable challenges I am trying to solve.

Kate is the sounding board over coffee or wine for everything from business to family.

And James, the person who has never hesitated to pull me into line or give me a kick in the right direction when I needed it.

And of course there’s my family. They are the ones who keep me grounded. Always. And my Dad will forever be the person who ingrained in me the qualities to work hard, be kind, stay humble, and smile always. I am my father’s daughter, and it’s what I’m proud of most.

All of these people I attribute to the very successes I have had in my life. And most I have found because I stopped looking for an official “mentor”, and started building relationships with people I admired, and whom believed in me. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who inspire you, who hold you to expectations of who they believe you can be, who see greatness within you, even when you don’t see it yourself.
Kim Abbott Web Developer

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