I can’t claim credit for that pithy phrase, since it’s the campaign slogan for National Mentoring Month. January has been proclaimed as the time to “connect our nation’s young people with the mentors they need to reach success at school, at home and in their communities.” And although the focus is on helping kids, mentoring in the business arena is also getting big press this month. Most of what I’m seeing is about the “hows” of mentoring in the professional world – how to set up and run a mentoring program, how to be a mentee (or mentoree, protégé, etc.), and how to be a mentor. What’s missing in these articles are the “whys.” In my opinion, why an organization should encourage mentoring and why someone should seek a mentor are no-brainers. But the question why someone should be a mentor could use more air time.
So why should you be a mentor? It sounds like a good idea, especially if your organization is encouraging you to participate in a formal program. But if you find yourself just going through the motions, please, for everyone’s sake, stop and re-assess. To really be “someone who matters to someone who matters” takes time and energy, and it’s not easy.
As a mentor in the professional world, you’ll need to give honest feedback wherever it’s needed, provide opportunities for visibility, help define career goals, and advocate for your mentee. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin in their HBR article “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” this is what people want from their mentors. In fact, the authors insist that for younger talent to reach their full potential, it takes more than what we typically think of as mentoring. Protégés need bona fide sponsors who “offer not just guidance but also advocacy, not just vision but also the tactical means of realizing it. They place bets on outstanding junior colleagues and call in favors for them.”
That sounds like a lot of work. It can be risky too. Kerrie Peraino, global head of talent at American Express explained the risk in a NY Times article last year: “When I put my faith in up-and-coming talent and become their sponsor, I need to know I can totally depend on them — because they are, after all, walking around with my brand on.”
So why work so hard and take those risks? What’s in it for you?
- You can’t help another person learn from your experience without a bit of self-reflection, something leaders rarely take the time for but nearly always say it pays off. Ask yourself questions like the ones in my post on year-end reflection. I guarantee you’ll have insights.
- Your OD and HR business partners will tell you that mentoring isn’t coaching. True, but it’s similar enough that your mentoring experience will definitely improve your ability to coach and develop your own people. And we all know that’s a big part of your job.
- Your mentees will teach you a lesson or two. Working with more junior talent will surely open your eyes to some of the issues and challenges people at their level are experiencing. If they belong to a younger generation that has you baffled, even better.
- No matter how long you’ve been around, you can’t know everything about your organization. While you’re exposing your mentees to your world, I’ll bet you’ll learn something you didn’t know about their function, line of business or projects they’re involved in. They might even introduce you to people you need to know. It goes both ways.
- Because your mentees will be watching you, you’ll be forced to pay closer attention to how you show up as a leader, and that’s never a bad thing.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Mentoring others, if you take it seriously, will make you a better leader. Is that reason enough for you?
In his National Mentoring Month proclamation, President Obama said “America is at its best when we lift each other up.” Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
Are you mentoring someone? Let us know what’s in it for you.