I write this smiling at the memory of three of the greatest mentors a gal could ever ask for. They were my guidance system in my early career. I got valuable advice from all three of them, and when they all passed away over the years, I found myself somewhat lost.
I no longer had anyone I trusted to bounce things off of. I didn't have anyone who understood the kind of background I had and who understood how hard it was to be a first-generation college student who was admittedly a bit rough around the edges (was?) in a professional academic world. Dang, I made a lot of mistakes just from sheer ignorance. And, once all of my mentors were gone, I was so lost as to what to do for the future—my career kind of started standing still, actually.
I've always heard if you don't look back on your life and think, "Boy, I was dumb," you aren't evolving as an adult. I look back on all the dumb things I did, and those three mentors were always there to reassure me. They would pick me up, dust me off, and get me back on the right path. I loved all three of them as family, and I am a better person for having known them. So, to E.J., Don, and Mark, wherever you are—cheers my friends! Thank you for all that you did for me.
It wasn't just academics that they mentored me on. I can remember being at a cocktail party at a conference. One of my mentors had an invitation to the president's reception at the event. He invited me to go and then showed me exactly what to do and say to be visible without standing out too much. Just good practical advice was what he gave, and it really helped me to be comfortable in an unfamiliar setting.
I have since found myself a bit older and a tad bit wiser. I still do dumb things, but at least I don't do the same dumb things I did before. Well, usually not. But I am thinking about mentors and why it's so important to have one. Every time I have a student graduating who has some edges that need polishing, I always recommend to the employer that they give them a good, strong mentor. Someone who will look out for their best interests, who will guide them in the hopes that they don't inadvertently do dumb things, and who will be a good source of advice when those unfortunate faux pas moments happen.
The Value of Mentors over Time
I have different mentors now. It took awhile for me to find some new ones after all of mine had passed on. What I have found that I need in my 50s are the female mentors I never had in my early career. While the three men who advised me gave me great advice, I never saw women lift each other up. I never saw them protect one another. I never saw them have each other's backs and look out for each other's best interests.
In my 40s, I met Gina. I met Lynn, Linda, and Angela. They are strong women I never had to ask to be mentors—they just saw that I needed a mentor, and they were instantly there to help me. I wonder what kind of career I would have had if I had instead met these amazing women in my 20s. Smart, strong women who have been very successful in the risk and insurance business have helped me so much, and I do love those women with all my heart. They elevate me and give me confidence, hope, and skill. I don't know what I'd do without them.
Establishing a Mentoring Program
I am now on a mission. That mission is to encourage EVERYONE who is hiring a college student to have a formal mentoring program in place. Mentees do not always know they need a mentor, and they don't always know how to use one. They definitely don't necessarily know how to find one or how to choose a good one. I firmly believe that a strong mentor can make a difference in whether or not a new employee just gets by or is seriously successful. You want success, right? Then get your new hires a mentor as soon as possible.
What does it take to have a successful mentoring program? The key is in choosing the mentor. The mentor needs to have several characteristics.
Discretion. If you pick the office gossip as a mentor, you're going to do more harm than good for that new hire. Nothing he or she says will be kept confidential, and that is essential for this to work.
A track record of success. Don't give your new hires a mentor who is stuck in his or her career and going nowhere. That's not helpful and will set up the new hire to fail almost immediately.
Tact, with the ability to have difficult conversations. Sometimes their mentees will make major mistakes that will need to be corrected. Another mentor of mine, Gerald, has the ability to tell me I have completely screwed up, yet I somehow walk away feeling energized and excited about the future. He's good at coaching other people toward success. That's a rare skill but an important one.
A genuine desire to want to see other people succeed. That is, after all, the purpose of assigning someone a mentor—to make them more successful. So, you need to be careful that you choose someone who loves to see others do well. Someone who isn't petty, jealous, or overly competitive.
Accessible. A mentor is no good to anyone if he or she is never around or available to meet with their mentees. Mentors don't have to be available 24/7, but they should be reasonably accessible.
In a smaller office setting, you may find that you don't have someone with all these characteristics; you have to do the best you can in those situations. Or you may find that there's only one person who is really good at the task of mentoring, so they get stuck doing all of it for everyone. That's not necessarily healthy either because, when the mentees have a conflict (and they surely will have one sooner or later), the mentor is stuck between them.
What I suggest is that you do some training on mentoring for success. Everyone has to learn somewhere and sometime, so why not here and now? Facilitating a mentoring program is one of the most rewarding things you can do to ensure the success of new hires. So, go on to your favorite bookseller and find some reading material on successful mentoring. Search YouTube for videos—they are there, trust me.
Employers and my clients are always asking me, "What can we do to attract college grads to our office?" I'm telling you, a formal mentoring program is a huge plus. If a student came to me and said, "Employer A is offering me $60,000, but Employer B is offering me $55,000 plus a formal mentoring program," I'd vote for Employer B every time. Over time, the $5,000 salary differential will be made up for in terms of the potential success for the mentee. That $5,000 will be a blip on the radar within 5 years, so I probably just wouldn't worry about it.
So, get out there and start formulating that mentoring plan. Let me know how it goes; I'm here to help.
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