In the early days of my career, I wasn’t enthusiastic about structured mentoring programs. I appreciated the advice given to me by more experienced co-workers and managers and was happy to help my peers when I had the time, but formal mentoring seemed to be taking it a step too far. What could it give me that my everyday interactions with my coworkers couldn’t?
I was wrong. After many wonderful mentoring experiences, I’ve learned how valuable and humbling it is to take on the role of a mentor. I can only hope that my mentees have gotten as much out of the experience as I have, as mentoring has made me both a better manager and a better colleague. Here’s why:
It helped me improve my managerial style
Have you ever seen a video of yourself and been surprised at how you look and sound? Mentoring has been like that for me. In our day-to-day interactions with coworkers, it’s possible to avoid seeing a reflection of ourselves, but when we take mentoring seriously, we’re forced to think carefully about how our mentee sees us, and about how our actions and words impact their development.
When I first started mentoring, I found it hard to put myself in the shoes of those who didn’t have my training and experience. I – and my mentee – were victims of the “curse of knowledge.” I was terse when I should have been expansive, and I found it frustrating that my mentee was unable to grasp what I considered to be relatively simple concepts.
Of course, they were only simple because I’d spent years learning the foundational knowledge upon which my understanding rested. As the mentoring process progressed, I began to analyze how I presented new ideas and came to the realization that I was not being an effective mentor. I changed my approach and, rather than talking at my mentees, began to talk to them, verifying that they understood each concept in a complex idea before moving on to the next.
Later, I began to apply the same approach to managerial situations and sales meetings. This lesson, which I may not have learned had I not become a mentor, has helped me communicate successfully with colleagues and customers for many years now.
It deepened my understanding
There’s nothing more valuable to our understanding than being forced to explain ourselves to someone else. I hadn’t questioned my understanding of a particular technical topic for many years when I started talking to my mentee about it. She listened politely, and after I’d finished my long and winding explanation, asked, “But wouldn’t it be better to do it this way?” She detailed an alternative approach — a superior approach — that I had never considered. Mentoring is a two-way learning process.
It can be difficult for the mentor to stop and listen to the mentee, and mentees can often feel too intimidated to offer their own ideas. Because I’ve learned so much through the mentoring process, it’s become second nature to me, but many new mentors will have to make a conscious effort to encourage mentees to speak up and contribute.
I’ve found the best way to do this is to ask questions. Ask mentees how they would solve a problem, and gently critique their response. Give them plenty of praise and make it clear that you’re happy to be interrupted if they have a thought. Cultivate an environment in which a healthy debate is welcomed, and you’ll learn a lot from the mentoring process.
It helped me trust my team
There’s a confidence in one’s own knowledge and capabilities that is common to business leaders and entrepreneurs. It’s what drives us to build businesses and persevere in the face of failure. But there are downsides, too: one fo mine was an unwillingness to trust the judgment of other people. I was prone to micromanage, especially in technical scenarios. After all, I had the job because of my technical expertise.
As I spent time talking to the people I mentored, I began to understand that, in many cases, they were just as adept as I was — often more so. They lacked the experience and applied knowledge to make the right call in some scenarios. But the more time I spent with them, the clearer it became to me that they could be trusted with a degree of autonomy that would previously have been impossible for me to give.
My company provides infrastructure hosting services for websites and web apps; it’s a technical field and small mistakes can have big consequences for our clients. I used to be a bit of a control freak, checking and double checking the work of my team before I let it go live. After having mentored my team members, I’ve learned that they’re just as diligent and obsessed with getting it right as I am, which helps me relax. It’s a win-win scenario, as they feel trusted and know that their expertise and autonomy is valued, while I have more time to focus on big-picture issues.
If you want to manage people effectively, mentoring is a great way to cultivate soft skills like empathy and conversation. Devoting some of your time to this rewarding activity can yield a high impact on your own managerial style.
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