Mentoring: How to lead powerful change in your organization

Jen Land | Director of Product Management, Marketplace, DDM | August 1, 2015

What would have helped you in the early days of your career? And what would help your career progression now?

Those were the main questions posed in a focus group I recently participated in. I didn’t hesitate at all. The answer to both questions was the same: mentoring. The mentoring I received from multiple people in my early career, the mentoring I continue to receive today, and the opportunities I have had to mentor others.

What role has mentoring played in your career? What role does it continue to have?

If you’re in a management position, hopefully you recognize the powerful opportunity you have to mentor others. What’s more, you have the opportunity to help them reach their potential as mentors themselves, helping those around them succeed. If you’re not in a management role, this article is for you too. You’re a mentor. You just don’t know it yet.

I took a quick, completely unscientific poll this week: I asked a random selection of people if they had had any opportunities, past or present, to mentor someone. I was surprised by how many people said no, they had not. And of those who answered “no,” the reasons they gave pretty much all fell into three categories:

Here’s the weird part, though. During the course of telling me how much they were not, nor could ever be, a mentor, nearly every one of the people I spoke to relayed stories of specific instances when they mentored someone. They just somehow didn’t realize they’d been doing it.

So, let’s examine each of the three categories, and I’ll respectfully explain why they are all complete bunk. Ready?

Myth: I don’t have time to mentor someone (or to be mentored, for that matter).
Reality: Mentoring is an everyday, anytime activity, like checking your email.

When I answered those two questions during the focus group centered on career progression, the moderator asked me for clarification: “When you say ‘mentoring,’ are you talking about a formal mentorship program?”

And my answer to that was … no, not really. It’s not that I’m against the idea of a formal mentoring program. There are tremendous benefits to mentoring regardless of how it comes about. However, I feel that too often we wait, and lose the opportunity to mentor (and be mentored), because there hasn’t been an express agreement set in place: I am your mentor/You are mentoring me.

Too many people view mentoring as an event — which it isn’t, not really. Not even a recurring event. When done effectively, mentoring is most often, very simply, an unscheduled opportunity to help a colleague learn something they didn’t know before.

It can happen because you’re training someone in a new job or teaching them a new skill, but it doesn’t have to be that, either. Some of the best mentoring I ever received was centered on the bigger-picture side of the equation: how to be a business person, not just how to do my job.

Not only is there not a need to schedule that type of mentoring, it really just doesn’t work like that. Those types of mentoring moments happen organically — you just have to be ready to recognize and welcome the opportunity to mentor or be mentored when it happens.

Myth: I’m not a manager — I don’t have anyone to mentor.
Reality: Mentoring is not a hierarchical activity.

A lot of my mentors have been my supervisors, and I’ve mentored many people who reported to me. That’s a common dynamic in mentoring. But — and this is important — a supervisor-to-direct-report relationship is absolutely not required. Sometimes it’s peer-to-peer. Sometimes it’s direct-report-to-supervisor. There is no specific construct that dictates who can mentor whom.

I have always actively encouraged inter-team mentoring in the departments I lead. That is, just because I am the supervisor does not mean I am the only person who does the mentoring. I not only want my team to mentor each other, I ask them to. We talk about it. I don’t hint at it, I specifically verbalize it, so they know we can all learn from each other.

(And by the way, in case it wasn’t clear, that includes my team mentoring me — it happens on a regular basis. I’ve got some wicked smart people on my team, see. I have learned a tremendous amount from them.)

Oh, and one more point on this one: I’ve had mentors who weren’t on the same team with me. I’ve had mentors I didn’t even work with. It doesn’t matter what your relationship is to each other. If you have something to teach, teach it. If someone has something to teach, listen up.

Myth: I don’t have useful skills to teach anyone.
Reality: If you have lived a life, you have skills to teach.

And I’m pretty sure you’ve lived a life.

Listen: There are opportunities to mentor and to be mentored nearly every day. Like I said before, the trick is to recognize these opportunities, and then take the time to acknowledge and act on them.

Do you know how to display complex data or concepts in a presentation so that the info is engaging and easy to consume? Did you ever have to deliver not so super news about a project to someone in executive leadership, and you have advice on how best to handle that task? Do you have techniques you use to help you keep your cool in a stressful situation? Do you have any little tips — any at all — that you’ve used in your career, or even in your life in general, that helped you succeed on any level?

Well, congrats! You are ready to mentor.

And yes, some of these may seem shockingly basic. But remember, it’s not just learning the lesson, or even committing it to memory. It’s putting it into action, making it a part of your everyday work life.

Let me wrap up by giving you some specific examples of lessons put into action. These are all things I learned through mentoring. I’ve used them in actual, real-life situations for years and I pass them along to my team too. Ask any member of my team to relay a mentorism, and I bet they’ll tell you one of these:

I have about a hundred more, but you get my point.

What it comes down to is this: Mentoring provides clarity, brings the big picture into focus. It has actual, real payoffs. Mentoring — on both sides of the mentor relationship — ensures that while you’re navigating through the myriad job-stuff pinging off the windshield of your everyday, you don’t ever lose sight of the career-stuff road you’re on. It helps you remember to think about your career while you’re worrying about your job.

So, yes — you are a mentor. You have stuff to teach. Now go find someone who can benefit from that. And see who you might inspire to mentor too, and what you might learn along the way.