Mentorship

Dr Ivan Joseph
December 14, 2020

No one does anything great alone.

About a decade ago, I left the tiny hamlet of Lamoni, Iowa, population one thousand, to head to Toronto, Canada, population millions and counting. I was starting a job as Director of Athletics at Ryerson University. What an experience! I felt like a country bumpkin in the big city lights. I’ll never forget coming off the city train and walking in a sea of people. It felt as if the crowd picked me up, carried me through the subterranean passageways, and spit me out into the bustling metropolis. 

 It was like there were ants scurrying everywhere—no eye contact; no smiles; no friendly ‘hellos.’ As I walked the last mile of my hour and a half commute to the office, I can distinctly recall seeing my reflection against a mirrored tower, wondering, “Who is that guy carrying a briefcase and wearing a three-piece suit?” That wasn’t me. My identity was ‘soccer coach.’ I wore running shoes and sweatpants—easy and comfortable. Buttoned-up business attire felt too smooth and sophisticated for me.

The first few weeks in the office felt very much the same. I was overwhelmed with imposter syndrome. I didn’t know how to ‘use’ a secretary; how to manage people; or, how to read a budget. I was too afraid to ask for help because I didn’t want anyone to think that I couldn’t handle the job.

Thankfully, my boss gave me a gift that helped ensure my success. He connected me with a mentor. She was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. She gave me a safe place to be vulnerable—a place to ask my questions; to test my theories; to bounce my ideas against; and filled my cup with praise when it was empty at the end of the week. Without her, I don’t imagine I would have made it through those first few months. I remember looking forward to our Friday sessions to share my perspectives and to get her feedback on my strategies. I valued her thoughts and ideas about navigating the job. She was generous, non-judgmental and always made it seem like I was the most important person in her day.

The power of mentorship has long been identified in the field of leadership key in advancing high performers through an organization. I want to encourage everybody to actively pursue finding a mentor in the early years of your career.

Here are some compelling statistics about the power of mentorship from a research study recently featured in  Harvard Business  Review: 

  • 25% of people who participated in some form of mentorship program reported receiving a raise compared to only 5% of those who did not participate in a mentorship program.
  • Mentees are promoted 5x more often than those who do not participate in a mentoring program.
  • Retention rates were higher for both mentees (22% more) and mentors (20% more) than for employees who did not participate in a mentoring program.

Pretty impressive stats.

Here are three things I want you to think about when looking for a mentor:

  1. It’s not just about the title. Find somebody who’s generous, and who’s ready and willing to share their time.
  2. It’s not just about excellence. Find someone who’s willing to share their mistakes with you, as well, as their successes.
  3. Find a mentor who has the subject matter expertise, either technical or leadership, that you are looking for. This will multiply your gains—organizational acumen and knowledge in the field.

Once you’ve identified a mentor, be sure to take a pause to seriously consider your part in this critical relationship.

Here are three things that you, as the mentee, do to honor your commitment to your mentor:

  1. It’s your job to come prepared with an agenda for driving each conversation. There’s nothing worse than a mentee who just shows up and expects the mentor to do all the work.
  2. You need to commit to spending the time genuinely reflecting and completing any homework tasks between sessions. There’s nothing more frustrating for a mentor than committing to the relationship and finding the mentee comes unprepared. It feels like your time is wasted.
  3. Express your gratitude. Ensure the mentor hears from you about the impact that he’s having on your performance. There’s nothing better for a mentor than the satisfaction of truly helping move someone forward.

Both mentor and mentee should take time to formalize the relationship. Be clear about what your expectations are: how often you want to meet; what your goals are; and, how you would like to communicate. There shouldn’t be anything easier for your mentor to do than find you and understand how they can help you toward a goal.

One of my favorite mentees was a young man named Guillermo Sanchez. He had a high work ethic. He was personable and charismatic. He came to me looking for technical skills. I didn’t want to take on a mentee at the time, but he was persistent. What sets him apart in my memory is how he made himself invaluable to me. Instead of it making work for me to explain skills to him, he looked to automate every exercise that I shared with him. As I was teaching him, he was cataloguing, ciphering, correlating, collating and creating a record of all of the exercises. That gift would later become incredibly helpful to me. What I learned helping Guillermo is that a mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be one way. Mentees can also add value to a relationship. Don’t underestimate what you can do or the value you could bring to the relationship.  Not surprisingly, this young man would go on to be the first  professional soccer coach from our program.

As we move through our lives and career, we are all going to find times when we are starting over from scratch—where we are the beginner. If you’re a senior leader, try to create a formalized mentorship program in your organization. Research has proven that the retention of high-performing and diverse employees is significantly impacted by a formalized mentorship program within the organization.

If you are a new and emerging leader, and there is no formalized mentorship program at your workplace, take the initiative to reach out yourself. Connect with someone who you feel exhibits the values of leadership and work ethic that you want to emulate. High performers don’t get there by accident. There are many people who help them along the way. Many of us are willing to help, if you are willing to ask. I can assure you, you’ll be glad you did.

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