Articles & Tips From The Lindenberger Group

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Learn to Take Charge of Mentoring Relationships

by Judith Lindenberger

Published in The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2002

Time after time, successful people I talk to say that one of the most important keys to their success is having a mentor. Without one, it’s hard to make it and takes too long, they say.

I didn’t have many mentors when I was building my career, but a few were especially memorable. Shortly after I began working at a Fortune 500 company as senior international human-resources consultant, Debra Walton became vice president in the company’s performance resource group — and my boss. At my first performance review, Debra told me that I excelled in every aspect of my job but to move ahead in my career, I needed to learn to think more strategically.

I took her feedback seriously. Over the next year I enlisted the help of one of the company’s top executives, Don Berg, a senior vice president and director of corporate development and strategy, to teach me about strategic thinking. Every month or two, we met for lunch. I listened carefully to Don’s stories about his own strategic moves, and he guided my decision-making. We’re still in touch today.

Years later, when I was working as the administrative director of a nonprofit organization, I hired a coach, Linda Sepe, to challenge me to create a strategy for my career. Linda used the game of chess as an analogy. “What is your ultimate goal?” she asked. “And if you make this move, what might the other player do?”

I remembered the chess-game analogy when a peer at work tried to sabotage a project I was leading. By thinking ahead more moves than my opponent, I succeeded in meeting the project’s goal. The assignment, revamping the technical operations of the organization, saved tens of thousands of dollars and increased employee morale and productivity.

Later, using strategic thinking, I thought hard about my future work life and realized that I had always wanted to own my own business. Now, I do.

That initial nudge from Debra, the mentoring from Don, and the coaching from Linda, provided important lessons that changed me.

I’ve also been able to mentor others. For example, shortly after I started my business, I was approached by a colleague who wanted advice about marketing her consulting practice. I suggested that she speak at professional clubs. My colleague confessed that she was nervous about speaking in public. I convinced her to take an acting class. She did, and the skills she learned increased her comfort with talking in front of others. Plus, she had fun.

For those of you who want a mentor or want to be one, these tips will help you along the way.

Be ready to mentor yourself.

Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” always had the power to go home, but for a long time she looked to others for the answers. Along her journey, she had several “mentors” — the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, the Wizard and Glenda, the Good Witch. But ultimately, Dorothy discovered that the power to go home was always within her.

In the absence of a mentor, analyze positive and negative events yourself. Figure out what your role was, what you did brilliantly and what you might do differently next time. Trust your intuition. Trust your crazy ideas. Trust yourself.

Take charge of your own mentoring.

In the old style of mentoring, a senior manager, generally a man, took a younger employee under his wing and showed him or her the ropes. Today, mentoring is protégé-driven. Seek out mentors rather than waiting for them to come to you.

Mentoring is about learning. To gain the most from a mentoring relationship, commit your goals to paper. Decide what you want to learn, write it down, and assess yourself along the way.

Build your own board of directors.

One mentor can’t be all things to his or her protégé. Enlist several people to call on for help.

Throughout my career, I’ve relied on a group of knowledgeable people to give me advice in the same way that corporations use boards of directors to steer them to greater profitability. My board, for instance, is comprised of my brother-in-law, who is an excellent writer; my husband, who understands office politics; and my former boss, Debra Walton, who tells me the truth.

Go where the learning is.

Look in every direction. Jack Welch at General Electric encouraged younger people with Internet skills to mentor older executives who weren’t Web savvy. And at the Fortune 500 company I worked for, one of the biggest champions of mentoring was the president of the international sales group, who told me that his mentor was one of his direct reports.

Bottom line: Don’t just look up for guidance, but to the side, and below, too.

Take a risk.

Mentoring works best when you pair with people who are significantly different from you. Men might seek out women, technical experts might seek out creative types, and detail-oriented people might look to big-picture thinkers.

Find a mentoring partner who will challenge your thinking. A good mentor nurtures your self-esteem and believes in your ability to achieve great things. But the best mentors also care enough to push you along faster than you want to go.

Consider this quote on mentoring, which I love, given to me by one of my mentors: “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure that you don’t get too comfortable, fall asleep and miss your life.”

Know when to move on.

Mentoring is an intense relationship. When you’ve accomplished your goals with a mentor, celebrate what you’ve learned together and move on. Be sure to thank and stay in touch with your mentors. They’ll want to know what you achieve in your career and they’ll appreciate the credit you give them.

Today, in fact, get in touch with someone who has helped you in your career and thank him or her. Write, e-mail or pick up the phone. But be sure to do it.

Copyright © 2015 by The Lindenberger Group, LLC. All rights reserved.


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