Harold Hillman: Five reasons to find a strong mentor

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There’s nothing like the wisdom from someone who has been there and back
Here are five reasons why you should find a work mentor. Photo / iStock
Here are five reasons why you should find a work mentor. Photo / iStock

The term 'mentor' is age-old. At work, you often hear it in discussions about someone who can help you manage your career better. Having a mentor is seen as a good thing, although there is wide variance in how people think of the relationship and its purpose.

The Wise Sage

The word itself was inspired by the character of Mentor in Homer's Odyssey. The purest definition is of someone of deep experience who takes a protégé under their wing to help shape a perspective, or build a certain skill set.

Plato not only taught Aristotle, but also was the younger protégé's mentor until the elder scholar died. In a modern-day context, the essence still holds. Whether your office is a construction site, a theater stage or a corporate suite, the gist of the mentor/mentee relationship is that wisdom is being passed on in a formal sense. To be mentored still carries the essence of privilege and distinction.

The protocol varies. The conversations usually happen on a scheduled rotation, most often a few times annually.

Most mentors are external to the company, as it frees the mentee up to speak candidly about any issues. The relationship will often endure across a lifetime, which speaks to how deep the bond can be if the chemistry is right.

Most successful leaders - in sport, business and politics - have worked with a mentor. Even if the relationship has not been formally described as such, there is usually that bond which is based on a strong mutual respect.

There is usually a positive energy exchange in the relationship. The mentor takes pride in the mentee's success. The mentee feels affirmed and validated by the recognition from the more experienced teacher.

Here are five reasons why you should find a mentor:

1. To help push your thinking out more.

A mentoring conversation is not about your day-to-day grind - what you might call your management duties. That is why most people don't think of their manager as a mentor.

A mentor pushes your thinking out to the next horizon or two, helping you to see your own career goals and vision clearer. The conversations help you gain clarity on the road ahead. A mentor encourages you to think in terms of greater contribution - where you can have maximum impact.

You can also learn from your mentor's career path and the choices they had to make along the way. Often their personal stories resonate deeply with current dilemmas you face, in much the same way that your stories resonate for people who may think of you as a mentor.

Your mentor will keep you focused on your True North, a term that Bill George made famous in his book of the same title. The conversations inspire you to think more broadly about your purpose, focus and drive to be better at what you do. Your True North is about you taking more of an active stance to live life to your fullest potential.

2. To serve as a rudder.

A mentor can provide a valuable ear when you've reached a critical decision point, like whether to abandon common wisdom and head down a path that you believe will unlock some golden opportunities that might otherwise go untapped.

The mentor's role is not to make a decision for you, but you can use them as a rudder, to help test the rigour of your thinking about something that you may be pondering. They can be particularly good at listening for assumptions in your thinking - some faulty - that you may be blind to.

A mentor of mine, Bill Clover from Amoco days, always grounded our conversations in the ethos of servant leadership, which proved helpful to me in later years around the direction my career would take. Your mentor's voice will often keep you calibrated around your own True North.

3. To help connect you with other people.

Success in business - or any organisation - is all about the quality of the relationships that you build and sustain across time. You will likely learn from your mentor's experience why you should never take any relationship for granted.

Building your external network should be an explicit part of your professional growth strategy. One of the advantages of having a mentor is the access that relationship provides to a broader network of like-minded and impressive people who can also introduce you to new experiences.

A mentor usually expects to bridge you into their professional and social network. You should consider potential mentors who have deep experience in certain areas that you would like to understand better.

Charlotte Roberts, of the famous Fifth Discipline circle, introduced me to some powerhouse thought leaders who were architects in the early days of learning organisations. Being able to spend time with those experts in her network, in her role as mentor, was an invaluable gift that she gave to me.

4. To be a champion for you.

A mentor can often help to open doors that might not otherwise be on your radar screen. Sometimes those doors may be in your own mind, which is why having a mentor is a built-in guarantee that you will remain open to broader possibilities about your development and growth.

Because a mentor is usually more senior, they are privy to more conversations where they can naturally, and with ease, connect you with someone important. Or they insert your name at just the right moment around an opportunity that is big. Or they might recommend you for a particular role.

All these things should be an output of, rather than an objective for, seeking a mentor. Like most people, mentors don't like to be exploited for their generosity and good will. If the relationship is based on genuine regard for each other (rather than the mentor feeling used as a means-to-an-end), then the relationship can thrive.

5. To help you gauge your growth.

Because the mentor relationship is ongoing, this person can help you bridge back across various data points that represent real growth - often too blurred in your own fast-paced existence to fully appreciate.

A mentor can hear growth in your thinking. They can also hear stronger confidence and self-belief, both which come with more experience and learning to back yourself.

It's affirming to hear your mentor comment on how you have grown. In my earlier years when being taught by a sensei in formal martial arts, that affirmation came as a real honour - especially from someone you admire.

You should count on your mentor to be honest and fair. They are not there to help you dilute the truth or create an alternate reality. Their role is to be an honest and trustworthy gauge on how you're tracking along your own career trajectory.

How do you find a mentor?

Ask around - formally and informally.

If your company is big enough and creates natural opportunities to expand your knowledge and network, think about asking someone in a different division to mentor you. Or someone from a partner company.

If you work in a small company, or are your own boss, you should think about working with someone external to your current world - who can help you think more broadly about your career, and even your life.

There are many exceptional leaders in New Zealand and beyond, who have inspired you for some particular reason that made a positive difference for you.

What better way to say 'thank you' than to request an opportunity to learn more?

The bottom line is: finding a mentor won't happen unless you make it happen. So be proactive and take a step that will give you some traction beneath your career trajectory.

Most people are honoured when you ask them to mentor you. And even if they can't for whatever reason, they will usually have a very good idea of who can help play that role.

And while chemistry is definitely important, don't overplay that card in determining who you might work best with. You're not looking for a best friend. You want someone who can be objective, challenging and willing to ask you the tough questions when required.

What do you have to lose? Nothing. What do you have to gain? A lot.

Find a strong mentor. There's nothing like the wisdom from someone who has been there and back.

- NZ Herald

Harold Hillman is an executive coach and author. He has a Master's Degree in Education from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Previous roles include Chief Learning Officer at Prudential Financial (New York). Hillman came to New Zealand in 2003 to join Fonterra and is now the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, where he coaches business leaders and executive teams. He is the author of two books: ‘The Impostor Syndrome’ and ‘Fitting In, Standing Out.’ Visit www.sigmoidcurve.com or www.drharoldhillman.com.

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