Mentorship In Everyday Interactions
Google defines a mentor as “someone who helps you see a clearer path, beyond obstacles, uplifting and guiding you towards your goals”. There’s solid research and data to show how important mentorships can be for career growth on both sides: a Forbes article mentions that mentees are likely to be promoted 5X more often and mentors themselves are likely to be promoted 6X more often than those that aren’t in mentoring relationships.
Earlier in my career, I was shy, not sure how and whether I should reach out to people I looked up to. I assumed being a mentor was a commitment of time and energy, and didn’t inadvertently want to put a busy person on the spot by asking them to be one. It felt safer to observe them from a distance — read their blogs, follow them on social media and ask the occasional question in an All Hands or an Ask Me Anything session.
Well, I will credit that younger me for seeking out silent mentorships this way, because along the way I embraced a new definition of mentorship — one that has widened my aperture and helped me learn from the everyday interactions from the everyday people in my life, creating a broader and more diverse set of learnings over time.
Mentorship isn’t always about intentional conversation. You can learn through observation and reflection, sometimes in the moment but often connecting the dots backwards in what people said, did or embodied. Early in my career, I worked for a leader named Paul. I had been hired by Paul into a product role with no prior product experience but with 5 years of solid engineering experience. Paul opened the door to my product career when many others were hesitant to take a chance on someone without prior experience. A few days into my new job, it was clear that Paul was one of the most loved people on our team. When Paul walked down a corridor, he addressed everyone by their first name, and seemed to know something about their lives outside work — a recent trip, the activities their kids were thriving in, their weekend plan or a pet they’d recently adopted. He knew because he cared enough to find out. When Paul went on a trip, he came back with something unique for everyone on the trip — something that bore relevance to them individually. When we returned from the holidays, we’d find a handwritten note from Paul, thanking us for our contributions to the team. When you asked Paul for advice, he always made the time for a call or a coffee, and the conversation was about YOU, notwithstanding the million competing priorities on his time. Paul brought people together, and helped them do their best work by truly tuning into their passion. Paul once said to me that the strongest sign of a good leader was when people who worked with them in previous lives asked to have a chance to work with them again. Even though we had just a few 1:1 conversations, Paul left a strong impression on me in how he treated others and in doing so, became an invaluable mentor.
The stories stick and the lessons remain relevant even as the context and situations change: I once asked a leader who oversees an organization with 50K+ global employees how he made the transition from leading a team of 10 to 100 to 1000. He said — “I stepped out from the driver’s seat of the train and started laying the railroads instead.” So visual and powerful, an analogy that has helped me apply that same learning to inflection points in my career, and help me help leaders on my team scale. Another time, I was wrangling a job that you wasn’t a good fit with an important personal goal that also needed attention. I stayed up at night debating whether I should switch jobs or stay put to focus on other priorities. A friend I spoke to said — “Pursue your options in parallel, the universe has a beautiful way of giving you your answers”. I followed this advice and over time, some options hit dead-ends, and others led to my next chapter personally and professionally. The best gifts come in the smallest packages — simple, one-off conversations are often packed with lessons that are relevant not only in the current situation , but also over the years, as the backdrop, people and context change.
Seeing others give back is a compelling reason to pay it forward: A powerful attribute of strong leaders is that they are never dead ends, they find a way to get you unblocked and moving forward. In my first job as a software engineer right out of college, I felt the need to validate my thinking with my onboarding buddy multiple times a week, sometimes a day. To date, I recollect how he never left me with nothing. I always returned with a pointer — a person, a book or a code reference — that let me go further independently. Over time, I became well-versed enough with the tech that I was mentoring my own buddies, but it was that early interaction that moulded me into a better listener and enabler. I may not always have an answer when someone knocks on my door, but it usually won’t be an “I don’t know”. More importantly, I proactively seek out ways to be a multiplier — finding ways to give back and pay it forward.
Mentorships needn’t be as time-intensive as we make them out to be, the key is to open our
minds and hearts to sharing and learning openly. I’ve always surprised myself with the growth that follows.