Leadership Labs – Mentor for the first steps

At some point, a leader is going to give you a tough message. Maybe it is your next mentor. Mentors are a critical piece to career growth, even more so for leaders looking to reach executive levels. Nothing can take the place of experience, and mentors can multiply experience through their coaching and insights. It is essential to put stock in the right mentoring relationships and record the lessons learned from them.

Early on in my career, I certainly worked for some great leaders, but they were not mentors. These leaders often lacked conviction or had benefited from lousy office politics. I quickly discerned that I did not want success based on being part of the right good old boy network. I also did not want to be a leader or invest in a business that did not truly value its employees. The environment must support mentoring. Meaning leaders must align to a set of values, and the organization must use mistakes as an opportunity to coach and build up their team members. 

A few years into my career, I accepted a role with a new company in the Treasure Valley and met my first mentor. My mentor was my direct leader and a relationship that would carry on to this day. It has not always been an easy relationship. Each of us has grown as people and teammates over the years. However, the lessons have certainly stuck, and early on in my career, they were the building blocks of my long-term success. The first piece of having a great mentor is that they do not just make you better at work, but a better person all around. 

Accountability was the first great lesson I learned from my mentor. At the time, it was not an easy lesson, and it came with consequences. I want to say that I handled it well, but I did not. This leader mentor was patient and took time to hear me out. Even more that took the opportunity to share the stern message that getting away with something and being stand up were two very different things. The lesson ultimately was about self-accountability and the personal power that comes with it. It taught me to manage the things I can control in my performance to better take on the things I cannot. Accountability was not the most important lesson I learned from this mentor, though. 

One of the most significant examples I saw from my mentor was being willing to take on risks, leaning heavily into self-accountability, working hard, and taking advantage of exposure moments. My mentor encouraged me to make my first move to Washington and put me in the right situations to shine. These exposure moments not only helped me to network but build up experience in how to work with others. It was my first lesson on how power dynamics work within an organization. When I was successful at obtaining my first manager role, my mentor was there for each step of the process, helping me prepare and have the right strategy. 

The lesson that evolved and has become the most important is experience. My mentor had a fantastic ability to see the opportunity of experience in each thing they took on. He could see what was needed to create an authentic experience for each person involved. It taught me to consider experience as part of the strategy, to not see things just at face value. The experience strategy is to have a long-term impression or impact. The experience strategy focuses on how each role contributes, what they take away, and the customer impact. Experience is the measurement that is longest-lasting and most impactful. Most use it as a guide on whether they want to continue or chose something else. 

It is not easy being a mentor. Being a mentor comes with stress and the loss of personal time. On many occasions, I have called my mentor late at night or shown up looking for advice in some of my most challenging times. We have not always agreed and have endured many food fights. Over the years, we have learned to lean into each other even more during tough times. Having a great mentor has helped set the example of being a leader that is available while still being a father and a husband. 

It is not uncommon to have more than one mentor throughout a career. I have certainly had other mentors, some that I chose and some that I did not. My first mentor gave me the building blocks that have become foundational in the success I have had in each position that I have held, not only making me a great teammate but a better person all around.

Essential lessons for mentoring:

In most cases, it is best when mentees get to chose their mentors. Work to create an environment where mentoring is encouraged. Create processes for when mentors need to be assigned where participants can interview each other and have options. The mentoring relationship is something that should be organic and has the opportunity to grow. Mentor relationships should be lasting and not set up to go for short bursts and programs. 

Be a mentor of honesty and transparency. No one wants development to someone’s puppet. Mentors should be observant and willing to give tough messages. Be ready to be a mentor who shares mistakes and discuss the lessons learned in their career. Having a mentor is about learning how to navigate an organization and make decisions. 

Choose a mentor with conviction and has aligned themselves to a set of values. When times get tough, you want an unwavering mentor and willing to stand next to you. More importantly, having a mentor whose opinion cannot easily be changed, especially about you.

Mentors should help young leaders to broaden their perspectives and challenge ways of looking at problems. Great leaders understand that diversity will build the path to inclusion. No one person is self-made, and very few are not willing to accept help.

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