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Mentoring – The Greatest Untapped Leadership Resource

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Think back to that moment in fifth grade when you stepped out onto the baseball field after having struck out three times, terrified that you would again let your team down. Fearful that you would be humiliated by another failure. Keenly aware of the eyes of your teammates and the spectators in the stands. Terrified to lift up the bat one more time. Then you felt an arm on your shoulder and a tug on your ball cap. Your coach leaned down and whispered in your ear, “Come on buddy, I know you can do it. Just keep your eyes on the ball. Don’t think about anything else. I have faith in you.” In one moment, terror can turn to faith, when you know someone believes in you.

All of us could probably tell a warm, wonderful story about someone from our past that had a huge impact on our lives. People who told us we could when we thought we couldn’t; who helped us see things from different angles when we were stuck; who saw potential in us that we couldn’t see ourselves; and who encouraged us to move beyond where we were to someplace better. Whether those people were teachers, grandparents, older siblings, coaches, counsellors, or adult friends, they were in the truest sense of the word, mentors who impacted our performance in positive ways. Here’s a thought – if it worked then, why couldn’t it work now?

Mentoring is a process with enormous potential to change lives, to increase productivity, to reveal answers to difficult questions, to inspire leadership, to encourage growth and to nurture self-esteem. Sadly, most of us still think about mentoring in the context of the classroom or the ball field. Let’s explore what mentoring really is, and how you can benefit from a mentoring relationship.

What Exactly is Mentoring?

Webster’s definition of a mentor is “a wise and faithful advisor”, and who couldn’t use one of those in life? Mentoring in its simplest form, is a relationship you develop with someone who is farther along in their business or life experience than you are. Someone you trust and whose successes and integrity you admire. Someone you have faith in, can talk to, ask advice of, and get honest feedback from. It could be someone you know well and already have a relationship with, or it could be someone you don’t know at all.

Mentoring relationships can be formal, where the parameters of the relationship are clearly set around business. Meetings take place regularly and are structured and focused on issues and results. This type of relationship appeals to people who don’t have a lot of time, are task-oriented, and who don’t like mixing business with pleasure. Clear boundaries are evident and the relationship is issue-driven. The mentor offers advice on specific problems or concerns that the mentee (the person benefiting from the mentor’s wisdom) is experiencing in his or her business, guidance on future decisions, and counsel on any other aspects of life. The mentor draws on his or her own experience, success and failure to provide guidance for the mentee.

Mentoring relationships can also be informal, where the mentor and mentee become more like friends. Meetings take place regularly but are less structured and focus on all aspects of home and business life. Meetings are casual in nature and may take place over a walk in the park as opposed to a boardroom, but the results are the same. Guidance, counsel, advice and wisdom are imparted to the mentee on issues relevant to their lives. This type of mentoring is relationship-driven and appeals to people who have a more casual approach to life, people who don’t mind their business and personal lives mixing a bit and who learn better from relationship than from structured, issue-driven meetings.

The continuum for mentoring relationships is broad, and yours could fit anywhere in between those two extremes. Some common expectations for mentoring relationships are:

  • Regular meetings, either in person or over the phone
  • A committed length of time (6 – 12 months is common and then the commitment is reviewed to determine whether it should continue)
  • A sharing by the mentee of goals, expectations, business or leadership activities, future plans, problem areas, etc.
  • A response by the mentor – advice and counsel on the issues presented
  • Confidentiality in all aspects of what is discussed within the relationship
  • Follow-up on goals set, decisions made, projects undertaken etc. with the mentor providing honest feedback on progress

How Can A Mentoring Relationship Make a Difference to Me?

Let’s say you are running a small business. It’s now two years old and you’re beginning to experience incredible growth. You can’t afford to expand with the capital you have, but you’re wondering if this might be the time to borrow to do it. How do you know what to do? How do you determine how much to borrow and from whom? How can you decide if this is the right time for your business? What questions do you need to ask?

Or maybe the opposite has happened. Your business is coming down from a huge growth period and things are slowing down. What can you do to turn things around again? Is this a time to pay attention to other aspects of the business? Should you be revisiting your business plan? How can you take this decline in sales and turn it into an advantage? Perhaps you’re having a difficult time with one of your employees. You like them (maybe even really need them) and appreciate their contribution to your company, but they are exhibiting some behaviors you can’t tolerate. How do you handle it?

Maybe you’re finding it difficult to balance your professional life with your home life. You’re finding yourself working long, necessary hours but your family is suffering. You’ve tried everything but can’t seem to make it work where both are receiving the attention they need. What’s important? Where should your priorities be? Where can you make changes?

When you’re struggling with those and other issues, your mentor relationship kicks in. You can discuss your issues with your mentor and rely on their experience, their expertise, and their successes and failures to guide you in your decision-making. A mentoring relationship is not an ultimatum where the mentor tells you what to do, but rather an ebb and flow of ideas. Because you chose them for very for specific reasons (not the least of which is that you admired their integrity and success), you’ll be more open to their counsel and advice.


Where Would I Look for a Mentor?

Make a list of significant people you’ve come in contact with in your business and personal life. Think back to teachers or professors, leaders of associations you’ve belonged to, churches you’ve attended, boards you’ve sat on, or organizations you’ve worked for. Think about other business people you’ve met or worked with. Think of all the activities you’ve been part of – charities you’ve contributed to or worked for, or even people you’ve simply admired over the years. As you begin to write these names down, you’ll find some immediately rising to the top, and you’ll find yourself getting excited as you think about being in relationship with them, and gleaning wisdom from them.

Here are a few key things you should consider when you’re narrowing down your choices.

Generally, it’s best not to choose someone who is a family member. It should be someone you feel you can trust, someone who has the time to commit to you and the mentoring relationship, someone whose integrity you admire, someone who has experiences that would be relevant to your situation, and someone who has had the kinds of successes in life you’d like to achieve.

Once you’ve come up with two or three people you feel strongly about, simply ask them if they’d be interested in mentoring you for a period of time. Be clear with them about what kinds of things you’d like to see happen as part of that relationship and what you hope to gain from it. Don’t be discouraged if the first person on your list turns you down – keep trying. The timing may not be right for them. It’s an honor and a privilege to be asked to fill this role in someone’s life, and eventually someone will say yes.

What Could I Offer as a Mentor?

 If you’ve benefited from a mentoring relationship, you might want to think about whether you can provide this kind of a relationship to someone else. It may be in a business capacity. It may be as a coach on a high school sports team, as a big brother/sister to a child without a parent, or in an organization that works with youth at risk. Maybe you could mentor college or university level students who are studying in your field of business or who are thinking of launching businesses of their own. Maybe it’s a friend who is struggling with some aspect of their life or business. The possibilities are endless, and the rewards can be great.

Life is partly about how we grow personally, but it’s equally about what we give back to others. Mentoring is a great way to do both. So tap into this amazing resource and see what it does for your leadership success! Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” A wise leader acknowledges that learning from others is essential to their own success, even though it may not always be easy!

There’s nothing quite like sitting across the table from a person whose success you admire and who has made a commitment to your personal and professional success. The opportunity to “sit at the feet” of a great leader will provide an invaluable growing experience and can become one of the most motivating and inspiring things you will ever do; the opportunity to do that for someone else, the most rewarding. Start building your list of potential mentors today and take advantage of this highly underused but extremely valuable leadership tool. You may be surprised at how effective your next “at bat” will be!

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