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Women in Information Management

Mentors: Be One, Get One, Thank One

By Kelle O'Neal

With the new year still feeling “new,” you may find yourself still thinking about what you want to accomplish in 2021. If find a mentor or be a mentor is something you’re considering, I’d love to share my thoughts on this topic with you.

When I look back over my career, I remember several people who played a mentoring role. Some didn’t have the official title of being my mentor, and some only mentored me in the moment. Each person played a part in my career that I remember and value to this day.

Early Perspectives on Mentoring

One of my oldest memories of being mentored was when I worked at Macy’s in my early twenties. My manager could be — what’s the nicest way of saying this? — challenging. She would stomp around the store, effectively scaring us all and leaving us hoping she wouldn’t come our way.

As the store manager, this woman worked in a leadership role in retail, which was more of a man’s world back then. I never thought she liked me much, even though she hired me. Soon, an area manager, Laurie, was hired between us, giving me space that I relished.

One day, I was called into the store manager’s office with Laurie coming along to the meeting with me. I’ll spare you the details, but I took a verbal beating and didn’t say much while it was happening. When I left the meeting, fuming inside, Laurie pulled me aside, saying she could see I was upset and asking for my thoughts on what happened.

With tears in my eyes, I passionately explained my side of the story, denying what I was accused of, defending my actions, and reliving the horrible meeting all over again. When Laurie asked why I was mostly silent, I said I didn’t think it was my place to say anything.

Laurie told me in no uncertain terms it was my place to speak up and defend myself and that I could still do this and be professional and respectful.

The encounter and her advice stayed with me all these years, and I’m sure it inspired me, more than once, to speak up and say what was on my mind. What I also recall about Laurie is that she was not just a great buffer for me but a wonderful manager, too. She played a role in making me a better one.

Clients Who Mentored Me

Another mentoring memory — an advice-on-the-fly one — was many years later when I was doing a presentation in front of a client audience. At one point, I made a disparaging remark about myself. Afterward, one of the senior client contacts came up to me and asked why I made the comment. She told me to never demean myself like that, saying it didn’t serve me — or anyone.

From then forward, I keep her advice in mind and work to strike that type of language from how I communicate.

When I worked in Asia, two clients played a role in helping me figure out how to work effectively in different cultures. They were both women — one was the CIO of a well-known Singaporean bank and the other was the CIO of a large Thai telecommunications company. They shared with me both the official and unofficial decision-making processes, the key influencers in their organizations and in Asian companies broadly. They educated me on how their markets worked and what was most effective to help their organizations gain value from the solution I was selling. Possibly most importantly, they coached me on behavior and communication approaches, both spoken and written, to better integrate into their culture. I greatly valued those mentoring moments and how they helped me be successful while working overseas.

Mentoring from Skip-Level Managers and Peers

I had other mentors over my career whose roles extended beyond in-the-moment advice. They regularly helped me more effectively process what was happening at work to see things in a bigger-picture context.

When I worked at Oracle, I was lucky to have a very supportive boss, as well as other members of the department. One of the key people who played a mentoring role was my manager’s peer, and my manager’s boss did, too. Meeting with them, we talked through how decisions were made and how to think about the many pieces of the organizational puzzle. Their insights were particularly beneficial because my role was working in a sales function in the company’s partnership and alliances group. The selling process was multi-faceted and complicated to navigate at times, and getting their advice meant a lot to me.

When I was considering leaving Oracle, I was afraid to talk with my manager about it. But I felt comfortable telling his boss. He took time to ask why I was thinking of making a change, questioning how this would play into my long-term career goals and encouraging me to have the conversation with my manager. He understood the broader software industry, the companies that were slated to grow, who would struggle and how to evaluate them. Having this leader as a trusted advisor enriched my career back then, and I hope I play a similar role to the people I work with today at FSFP.

Best Characteristics of Mentors

If you’re considering getting a mentor or being a mentor to someone, empathy — what my skip-level manager at Oracle regularly demonstrated — is a vital characteristic.

Another beneficial trait, though it’s not always required, is for a mentor to have some degree of more experience than the mentee. This way, they can guide you around whatever areas you want to develop, such as improved management skills or industry expertise. Knowing that someone’s been down the road you’re embarking on makes their mentoring advice even more meaningful.

The best mentors are also great questioners. Asking the right questions and then really listening — often more than they talk — can make a difference in how the mentee can come to their own decisions.

Being trustworthy and keeping what is said confidential matters, as well. Being mentored puts you in a vulnerable spot as you share things with a mentor that you don’t share elsewhere.

Lastly, great mentors genuinely have your best interests at heart — not their own interests or the company’s. Sometimes, a direct manager can do this. Other times, it’s not possible.

Business Coaches and Accountability Groups

Most mentor/mentee relationships are free for the asking and giving. But there are times when you might need to pay for a mentor, and that’s why I’m sharing this option with you. In these instances, you’re likely working with a business coach.

Today I have two ways of getting mentorship — both in a paid capacity. It’s not how you would typically think of a mentor relationship, but it’s invaluable to me. With one mentor, we focus on the HR side of the business, organizational design, performance management and critical conversations I need to have with my staff and how to enable them to have critical conversations, too. She’s been incredible to work with and is a talented, supportive guide.

I also regularly meet with a group of executives where a business coach is the facilitator. I pay a fee to be involved, and the group’s been worth the investment for me. We do regular group meetings (currently, video calls) and also monthly one-on-ones with the coach. The group calls are a combination of expert presentations and trouble-shooting member issues. Whether we are problem-solving one of my issues or not, I always learn concepts and techniques that I can apply to my challenges and opportunities. And when we commit to leveraging a new approach, the group holds each person accountable for the execution and bringing lessons learned back to the group. It’s a team of peers to help me with my team at FSFP.

How to Approach a Prospective Mentor

Finding someone willing to mentor you in an official capacity can take time, but it’s a worthwhile effort.

I like this step-by-step approach in Harvard Business Reviews’ How to Build a Great Relationship with a Mentor article:

  • Define your goals and specific needs for getting a mentor — where you want to be and the opportunities and gaps before you.
  • Write the “job description” of your ideal mentor, defining someone who can help you get where you want to go.
  • Search for mentors through your second-degree network. LinkedIn is a great place for this, of course.
  • Make the ask and keep things simple by requesting an initial conversation where you can get to know the potential mentor.
  • Use that first meeting to determine if this person is the right fit for you and if they’re open to the idea of mentoring you.
  • Schedule a follow-up meeting to seal the deal. Once the person confirms they will meet with you again, send an email proposing an agenda and hinting at the idea of a longer-term relationship.
  • Once the mentor says yes, create a structured accountability process with an agreement that includes terms that say, for example, you will meet once a month for the next six months.

The article’s author recommends showing appreciation after each interaction with the mentor, saying how you’re benefiting from the relationship. That’s excellent advice, and I hope I remembered to thank my many mentors along the way.

Who’s Helping You and Who Are You Helping?

If you believe now is the time to get a mentor or be one, I encourage you to take the leap. You’ll benefit from the fresh perspectives and guidance that come from being mentored. If you’re in the mentor’s seat, you can pay it forward by sharing your hard-earned wisdom and insights to others — and you may learn something, too. And don’t forget that “mentoring” can also be ad hoc bits of wisdom that meaningfully change your perspective.

Look for those mentoring moments and opportunities in your workplace … then carpe diem!