Of Mentors and Mentees

This year marks 22 years of my working in Corporate America. There is nothing special about that number except my own realization that means I have spent exactly half of my life working in the Corporate world. Don’t worry – I am not about to go into a midlife crisis meltdown or have you analyze my last 22 years with me!  No, I bring this up only because it is as good a time as any to reflect on the shifts I have seen in those two decades (oh boy, do I feel old!).  Shifts primarily related to one key topic – mentorship, and specifically its close association with leadership.

Graduating on the heels of one of the worst recessions, that spring of 1991 was probably as stressful for new graduates as the class of 2008. But, I was fortunate enough to land the perfect job – with Bellcore, which had been spun out from Bell Labs in 1983, as the research arm of Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs). Not only did the environment at the company foster research and development, it happened to be a collection of some of the finest brains in Telecommunications, my core focus during undergraduate program.

My five years at Bellcore provided the perfect foundation any fresh graduate could ever ask for. But it all started with one unique thing you don’t hear much of nowadays – mentorship. On my first day, I didn’t just have a manager, I was also assigned a mentor.  How many of you are wondering right now – a manager and a mentor? Aren’t they one and the same?  Yes, they could be – but in those days, before the word “productivity” took on a whole new meaning in Corporate America, it was considered a calculated investment with a clear payoff: getting the best out of the new employees. The foresight of that investment has to be lauded.

The role of mentor was clearly prescribed: show the employee around, introduce them to other folks, but most importantly work with them on their first project and guide them through the process of what it takes to complete it successfully within the context of the rest of the organization. Simple. But very powerful. The confidence you get in the successful completion of that first assignment leads to great things. And let’s not forget the pay-it-forward effect – just two years later, I was mentoring the new hires. I had to give back.

Mentoring is extremely important in those foundational years. Many people are not as fortunate as I to be assigned an official mentor but I can say this – we all seek them daily. In early years of your career, it is more explicit; in later years, you do it somewhat subconsciously. But you do it all the time. What exactly is mentorship? Well, simply put, it is learning the ropes. However, it changes over time. In early years, you just want to learn the basics: who is who in the company, how do I get a project done, what is expected behavior of me, etc. But quickly, it turns to other skills. If you are in sales, it is about learning sales skills; if you are a developer, it is about learning efficient design and coding methodologies; etc. As you advance in your career, it turns to soft skills: Corporate politics and how you deal with it, conflict resolution between employees, negotiating your way to advancement of your business or even career goals, ability to drive those around you towards what you want to get done. None of us learn those things on our own even after 15 years in the Corporate world, and good news is that you never stop learning.

However, there is one gotcha. Sometimes we fall into the trap of being mentees but not switching to being mentors for those around us. This is a subtle transition and closely related to leadership. Let me give you my definition of leadership first –tied to two basic things: inspiration and execution. You are a good leader if you inspire those around you to do more than what they ever thought they could, and even a better leader if you can help them execute. You don’t have to be a manager to be a good leader – a mistake, I think so many people make. There are leaders everywhere in an organization. Good managers have to find them, and leverage them for the good of the rest of the organization. If you buy my definition of leadership, you will see why I think the tie to mentorship is so important. It starts with one simple fact: good leaders tend to have had some good mentors in their past. But having a good mentor is also like a drug – you seek them everywhere you go!  The challenge is making the transition from being a mentee to being a mentor – i.e., the mentee realizing that he/she has now become the leader, and people around are looking to them to be inspired, to be led, and yes, to be mentored by them.

As I mentioned earlier, good mentors never stop learning, but here is an interesting fact: if you did your job right as a mentor, the person you might learn most from in the future (if you are lucky) is your mente.! That is when you know, as a mentor, you have been successful. It is the ultimate nirvana for mentors, and something we should all aspire to. Just imagine how successful organizations could be if you were able to achieve that level?

Mentorship and leadership – two very closely connected concepts, and don’t ever forget one leads to the other. Mentorship, therefore, has to be at the core of each organization – formally or informally – and if you do, your future is going to be just fine.

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