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Treating Mentorship as a Behavior

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

I feel mentorship has an undeserved bad rap. Most people are told they need it and could benefit from it, but their only real experience with it is through formal "mentorship programs" that feel like poorly executed blind dates. I believe that in its best form, mentorship (on both the mentor and protégé side) is not an assignment or a match making program, but an attitude and a behavior. Mentorship is an intentional approach to life, and once you start to treat it as such, it becomes a skill and relationship that can be developed, regardless of how much or little experience you have. When you work to develop the skills to become intentional with mentorship, you must approach it from two perspectives: as a Mindful Mentor and a Proactive Protégé.

Mindful Mentor

The Mindful Mentor is intentional in seeking out those who could benefit from their knowledge, skills and abilities. It does take courage to reach out, and even more to say, "I've noticed this about you, and I’d like to offer some guidance based on my experience. I'm offering this because I feel you care to learn and improve." Not everyone appreciates a cup of unsolicited feedback in the morning, and there will be times that this approach falls on deaf ears. That's ok. You'll have other opportunities to mentor people. Ideally, you're being mindful of those around you, and looking for people who may struggle with a skill that you would identify as a strength. You’re showing a willingness to help them grow!

I was fairly new to my company when I was in a meeting that was led and attended by other junior level engineers. The person "leading" the meeting wasn't really doing much leading. We managed to use the entire time allotted, didn't stay on task, and successfully ended the meeting without any action items. I stayed behind to talk to the person leading the meeting and asked probing questions: "Did you get what you hoped for out of that meeting? Do you know what the next steps are? Do you feel the other engineers know what the next steps are?" I could tell that he, too, felt the meeting didn't go as well as planned. We chatted about putting together an agenda for the next meeting, some tips to stay on topic, and the value of ending the meeting with an action item recap to hold everyone accountable. The result? A much smoother, more efficient, and outcome-oriented use of time! Who was I to give this engineer advice on how to get the results he wanted out of a meeting? He had been at the company much longer than I had, it wasn't my responsibility to lead the meeting, and he wasn't asking for advice or feedback. I was a Mindful Mentor. I looked for and capitalized on the opportunity to mentor someone else to better their career.

Anyone can do this! We all have unique knowledge, skills and abilities that can be leveraged to help mentor other people. It's like walking by a piece of litter on the ground; You see the opportunity to make the difference. It’s your choice to pick up the litter or not, just as it's your choice to be a Mindful Mentor or not.

Proactive Protégé

The Proactive Protégé is someone who is self aware of their areas of development and is always looking to improve within those areas. There is purpose behind their questions, there is intent behind the notes they take, and they embrace a "growth mindset." Ultimately, they are able to see where their areas of development are possessed as strengths within others, and they utilize those people as models for growth. The Proactive Protégé is an easier role to assume than the Mindful Mentor, because it doesn't require you to reach out to someone to learn from them. Lots of mentorship can be obtained in the shadows, when you’re quietly watching, learning and modeling behavior. I believe you can learn much more by taking the step out of your comfort zone to reach out, but I respect the fact that growth can happen without it.

One time I was having lunch with a protégé of mine, when she said something that sparked an idea. I didn't hesitate to bestow my highly profound knowledge on her and tell her she should schedule some time to meet with another colleague because they, too, could be a great mentor for her. She told me she already knew this person and recently had coffee with them. I was shocked. "How do you know her?", I asked. She told me, "I heard her speak at an event, and was very impressed, so I reached out to have coffee to get to know her better." Here I was, filling the role as Mentor, and I'm the one taking notes on how small but profound her initiative and tenacity were. In that moment, I became the Proactive Protégé. I've heard plenty of great people speak and present, but never once have I reached out to have coffee. At least not until that point :)

I ask two things of you today:

  1. Be a Mindful Mentor - Know your strengths and go through your day as a hammer looking for nails! Start with baby steps and when you see an opportunity to mentor someone, don’t be afraid to reach out. Be sure to use tact when approaching the situation.

  2. Be a Proactive Protégé - Know your areas for development and go through your day as a nail looking for hammers (had to do it). It's okay to start from the shadows while you get used to the concept, but try to be brave and reach out to someone and set up coffee. Once they know why, you're going to be hard pressed to get a decline when the purpose of the cup of java is for them to talk about how awesome they are.

If you work to develop as a Mindful Mentor and a Proactive Protégé, the lines start to blur. You will be offering advice to your mentors and modeling the behaviors of your protégé's. It's at that point when you'll really understand what mentorship is and the power it wields. This all starts with treating mentorship as a behavior.

Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.

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