Are you my mentor? – thoughts and advice

Last month, Sain sponsored Southern District ITE’s first-ever Speed Mentoring event. Discussions about mentoring and the value it generates have been part of the leadership training that SDITE has provided over the past decade. Still, they had never hosted a mentoring-specific session until the 2021 conference. I provided a brief keynote address to introduce the session where I shared my thoughts and advice on mentoring.

This past year has been a real challenge as we’ve had to rely on virtual platforms to relate to one another. Many people have experienced feelings of isolation and loss. Even if you have maintained a sense of connectedness, your interactions with others have been different. The separation of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us how meaningful relationships are and how much they need to be nurtured.

Are you familiar with the children’s book Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman? It is a story about a baby bird who wakes up and finds himself alone in the nest. He sets off on a quest to find his mother. Not knowing what his mother will look like, he asks various animals and even a steam shovel, “are you my mother?” In her best-selling book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg compares the professional quest for a mentor to this beloved children’s book. On many occasions, she has been asked by total strangers, “will you be my mentor?”  In her experience, asking that question of a stranger is not a very good way to find a mentor. Sandberg states, “When someone finds the right mentor, it is obvious.” If you must ask the question, “are you my mentor,” the answer is probably ‘no.’

Author and leadership consultant Simon Sinek put it another way. He says a mentor relationship is more like a friendship. It evolves over time and the focus is on the relationship. Sinek also says a truly great mentor relationship is reciprocal – not mentor/mentee, but mentor/mentor – where both participants learn from each other. Sociologists tell us humans have a deep desire to participate in reciprocal behavior, so it makes sense that the type of relationship Sinek describes would be appealing.

I recently did some internet research for a business development training class and found this insightful definition of relationships by consultant Scott Pollack: “A relationship is a stew made from exchanged value, shared respect, and proactive helpfulness.”  Pollack wasn’t talking about mentoring specifically, but the core ingredients of success still apply and speak to this idea of reciprocity: exchanged value, shared respect, and proactive helpfulness. That’s a pretty good basic recipe for a successful mentoring relationship.

Sometimes it’s not so obvious that mentoring is taking place. Hindsight is probably the best vantage point to identify the mentors in our lives. Through that rear-view mirror, we can see the people who helped us and the lessons we learned.  As I think back on my career development, mentors have taught me how to: persevere without burning out, handle conflict in a productive manner, and advocate for myself.

I thought you might enjoy hearing some other SDITE members share their thoughts about mentoring or what they have learned through a significant relationship.  

Young member Luana Broshears from Alabama shared this: “Soft skills are definitely the biggest help I get from my mentors. A mentor once explained that knowing how to deal differently with different people is key for a successful team. Not everyone has the same technical skills or the same personality, so it’s important to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each person and work with them accordingly.”

Radha Swayampakala from North Carolina reflected on a lesson learned about relationships in the early days of his career. He was told “You build relationships the day you graduate and the day you start work. When you become a supervisor or business development leader, that’s not when you start building relationships.”  Radha reflected on how many of those people he used to go to school with or connect with at young professionals’ meetings are now in charge of big projects. Those connections have proven increasingly important.

Kentucky Section Director, Lindsay Walker, remembers how her first supervisor encouraged her to look at all the inputs to a software program and go back to the definitions to fully understand what the program was seeking. It was tedious work, but she learned a lot and was able to feel more confident moving forward. Through that mentoring relationship, she learned the value of research and developing a thorough understanding of her work.

SDITE Administrator Craig Hanchey received a caution as a young professional centered on looking forward to the arc of his future professional life. “A mentor taught me the importance of being patient and enjoying the journey. Six months out of school, a mentor told me to be sure to enjoy the time when I was focused almost exclusively on technical work. As my career progressed and my time was focused on other responsibilities, I would find that I missed the days doing the technical work that I loved and had chosen as a career.”

Are you interested in making connections and building relationships? During the month of May, we will share tips that will help you form better mentoring relationships. Follow along on our social media to learn more. Every day is a good day to start a new relationship, so we hope you join us as we share some mentoring wisdom!