The power of strong mentorship

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This post is part three of a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the others in the series.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

-Isaac Newton (1675)


This is a quote I’ve referenced before, and it’s among my favorites – though I am admittedly a Newton buff. (If you don’t know much about Sir Isaac outside of stories about falling apples, James Gleick wrote a great biography that I think you will enjoy). The acceleration in one’s development and career advancement that results from strong and diverse mentorship is one of the pillars in my “how to succeed in the workplace” approach that I’ve introduced previously. In short, my experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentors, embrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these I always add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play.

Strong mentors are a key driver of your development

One of my favorite pieces of advice regarding knowing when to consider a company or role change is that you should be getting at least as much from your employer as your company is getting from you. For me this is about personal growth and development, and the advancement of skills – not merely the compensation and titles that so many focus on. The former is far more valuable in the end. One key factor I have found that drives this growth is the influence of great mentorship. For me, these mentors have often been direct managers – but do not underestimate the value of peer mentorship as well. What matters is that we learn from the diverse experiences gained by others in their own careers to further our own advancement and ability to contribute. This is the core of the Newton quote!

I was fortunate in that I had several strong mentors right out of college. The first of these was my graduate school advisor, and the second was a manager at my first post-graduate job. When I consider what was consistent between these two leaders, it is that they knew the balance of when to steer me and when to let me stumble around to let me grow by doing – the most powerful learning tool. Each had strong and diverse experience in their field so that the potential for me to learn was great. The key factors that also needed be present were their deliberate mentoring mindset, patience to allow me to grow and not merely tell me what to do, and creation of an atmosphere in which I could succeed without fear of failure. They knew how to leverage my strongest skills!

A specific example comes to mind – after only a few months of working for this manager, an opportunity came up for a leadership role on his ever-growing team. This would mean stepping up to oversee a group of people who had previously been my peers. I knew the laboratory work well, but the opportunity was to learn management, as I had only been an individual contributor before. I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience. My manager seemed to always know the right balance of observing from the background vs. engaging directly with me. The positive atmosphere he fostered also meant I felt comfortable coming to him with questions at anytime – and he was always willing to make time to talk with me. As a result, I learned so much about people and group management in that next year. Having such a positive experience out of the gate definitely served as a jumping off point for a career that would eventually take me to positions where I led organizations of hundreds of people. Consider the alternative scenario – I am put into a role wholly new to me, and I receive little to no guidance. I struggle with the very first conflicts I encounter and I have a terrible experience, and then stay away from management for years to come. Vastly different outcomes, right?

How do you find good mentors? The interview process is one path. Really try to understand if your future manager is one from whom you can learn. Leverage your network if you can and find out what it’s like to work with that person. If you’re at a company you like but aren’t getting the mentorship you need, consider a role in another group with a stronger leader from whom you can learn. Aligning yourself with strong mentors is essential for growth, and it’s worth the effort it may take to find them.

Mentorship doesn’t only come from your manager

Not all managers are created equally when it comes to the potential to be a strong mentor. In addition, you might be seeking growth in an area that is not a core competency of your direct supervisor. This is where peer mentorship comes into play. A peer mentor doesn’t necessarily need be at a similar level in your company – they can still be a superior outside of your own management line. The point is that you can ask someone to be a career mentor for you. Somewhat embarrassingly, I didn’t even know this was a possibility until I was more than halfway through my own career. You may be surprised how willing many people are to serve in this kind of role, meeting with you once a month to provide career coaching. You can even write this into your development plan. All of us benefit from the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone, learning from their experience. Peer coaching can be a very safe way to get that guidance without any concern about looking inexperienced (or needy!) to your direct manager.

A request – please do consider if there is an opportunity for you to mentor others. They may not come to you and request this of you. But do consider if this is something appropriate to offer up to a junior colleague who shows potential, and with whom you enjoy working. You may end up having immeasurable positive impact on their career, and of course you will grow through this process as well. And who knows? Maybe some day you’ll end up working for them! ?

Further reading

A few recommendations to share: First, I absolutely recommend “Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferris. Particularly if you aren’t familiar with Tim’s podcast, this is a convenient way to get the collected wisdom of a very diverse group of world-class performers, most at the very top of their field. Not all the interviewees were of the same interest level to me, but with more than 200 of them, you’ll surely find many who resonate with you!

Second, my very favorite book about how to lead and coach development – one that taught me more about how to be a mentor than anything else: “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Pat Lencioni. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Pat speak and it was very impactful for me. This book, and the workshop it teaches you to run, can transform how you manage people and take you from “boss” to “leader” quicker than you would imagine. It’s an easy read, using a simple workplace fable as a backdrop to lay down the principles of Pat’s method. This is the only management book I have re-read many times, and there are other tools and books available to support this method.

Finally a bonus recommendation: harkening back to the quote, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” by Stephen Hawking is a fabulous collection for the science-minded. This book represents a look at the discoveries that altered our perception of the world via a compilation of seven classic works on physics and astronomy. His choice of landmark works by some of the world’s great thinkers – including Newton and Einstein, traces the evolution of science and shows how each figure built upon the genius of those who came before them. I really enjoyed it.

photo credit: “Mustang Mentoring 2011” by bujiie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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