How to be your own mentor

There are loads of books and articles dedicated to finding a mentor or being a mentor. There isn’t much information however, on what you can do when you have to rely on yourself to do the mentoring. For those in top-secret careers– say government intelligence or highly sensitive product development– there isn’t exactly an option to rely on someone else to help you to get through tougher than most career moments.

Count on your team: When Robin Seiler, Corporate Vice President of Surface Program Management for Microsoft was working on the launch of the line, she couldn’t share any specifics with family or friends. “When Microsoft first introduced the idea of Surface to a few internal team members, it was decided until we had a product that was tangible and usable, we wanted to keep the idea under wraps. We ended up having to hide it from the rest of the company for the first 18 months of product development. This wasn’t always easy, it’s natural to want to talk about the work you’re doing-especially when you’re passionate about it I know I really wanted to tell my family and friends about this innovative new device I was working on.” As it turns out, keeping things strictly between the development team turned out to be a smart move.

“In the end I think that necessary secrecy is one of the things that bonded our original team so tightly. Even as we grew larger and launched Surface and Surface Pro that team closeness remained. Today 90% of the team who launched those products are still here building products with us today and that’s something we’re really proud of.”

Sometimes you don’t need a mentor if you have a tight and like-minded team to work with. Or try something else entirely: When starting a new business or even changing careers, a mentor can guide you through the process and set you up for success by offering lessons and advice from their own experiences. Phil Lubell, Vice President, SOHO/Consumer Product and Brand Marketing, Brother International Corporation offered some tips for those without access to a mentor:

  • Start with a plan: Building a plan and setting goals gives you a clear map of next steps.
  • Create your own opportunities: Take charge and execute against that plan to gain the experience you need to be successful.
  • Network online: Find people in similar fields to connect with and collaborate on ideas that might help you grow.
  • Find balance: Starting a business is challenging and tasking. Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself and step away when needed to keep a clear mindset.

Step away from the situation: If you’re still having a tough time gaining perspective on a situation or problem, maybe it’s time to take a giant step backward. “A lot of people turn to somebody else to help solve a problem – which is great and helpful – but you can also start to address a question by stepping back and looking objectively at the situation, which can be really hard” offered Kim Saxton, Indiana University Kelley School of Business Clinical Professor of Marketing. In situations when you can’t share potentially sensitive information Saxton suggests that you can be your own mentor by trying something known as a thought experiment which is used often in start-up ventures. “Take yourself out of the situation and run through the alternatives or the options to solve this problem. If you have this need, how could you solve it?” While you’re at it, she suggests that you ask yourself “What are the five best ways to solve this (problem), and if you did that, what are the implications? Look for patterns across those options and find the right answer for you. A thought experiment is a structured framework for how you think objectively. If you follow these steps, you can essentially mentor yourself.”

Be Vague: When you can’t tap into the broader team but need advice, Seiler says that the first thing that happens is “First you learn how to ask more vague questions to get the input and insights you need.”

Create structure: If you still feel as if you can’t function without some sort of a mentor or guru relationship, consider setting up internal rules to work by. “On the Surface team, we’ve developed a set of guiding principles that has become the foundation of everything we do and create. By having these shared principles, it helped us all solve problems, stay aligned and operate as one team all the time,” Seiler said. For the Surface team, those principles are:

Be Relentless, Fail Fast, Be Human, Grab an Oar and No Cynics

“With these values at our core we came together as a team to stay motivated. We celebrate the small wins. This both created and reinforced the culture that we work in today. We work to understand failures and learn from them to get better – and make sure we celebrate that too.” And that’s where things get really interesting.  Mentoring is a natural byproduct of working this way and has become one of the most rewarding parts of my role today.”