How You Can Be Your Own Mentor

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In today’s fast-paced working environment companies don’t always have a straightforward plan for their employee’s personal and professional growth. Even if they do, chances are it’s a pretty low priority. To be sure you’re successful and growing in your career you often have to take matters into your own hands.

A lucky few of us have mentors that can guide us down the right path. A good mentor can show you the ropes, point out potential pitfalls and be a sympathetic shoulder to lean on. If you have access to a mentor don’t take them for granted. Make sure you pay attention to them. Make sure you listen to their advice. They may not be around for long.

I’ve spent most of my life without a good mentor, for various reasons. I found out early on that if you want to grow and learn you need to push yourself. You can be your own mentor, and in some ways, even if you’ve got someone pushing you, it’s a good idea to take that high-level control yourself.

As I’m pretty familiar with self-mentoring, I thought I’d offer up a few tips, observations and suggestions. Let’s begin with lifelong learning.

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Lifelong Learning

I’ve been a big fan of what many people call “lifelong learning”. It’s a philosophy of always pushing yourself to learn new things and expand your skill-set. I think the first step to mentoring yourself is making a commitment to lifelong learning. This means taking the initiative to read books on topics that interest you, take classes, ask questions and take an active stake in your personal and professional growth.

Discover Your Strengths and Weaknesses

You’ll want to evaluate yourself on an ongoing basis. Ask for feedback from your coworkers and peers. Listen to what they say about you and then honestly evaluate that feedback. Learn what you’re good at and what you need help with. Then take steps to improve upon those things.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

One of the best ways to grow is to get uncomfortable. Try something you aren’t sure if you’ll succeed at. Push yourself to take chances now and then. Some of the best learning I’ve ever had has been when I’ve been put in a situation that I didn’t really like.

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Reward Yourself

When you’ve made a breakthrough, or done something you’re proud of, treat yourself to something good. Have a special dinner. Go see a movie. Buy yourself something nice. Life is about living, not working, so live it up once in awhile.

Network and Look to Your Peers

Being your own mentor doesn’t mean going at things all alone. It’s important to connect with people who share similar talents, skills and interests. Take the time to get involved in your professional community, to meet your peers and get to know them. Chances are you’ll learn a lot.

Ask Questions

Be sure and ask lots of questions. One of the things I do is solicit “mini-mentorship” from my peers. I ask them about their lives, their work and their lessons learned. I’ve found that almost everyone has something good to share, and if you’re willing to listen you’ll learn something.

Become a Mentor Yourself

Some of the best lessons in life are those I’ve learned from someone I’m trying to help. Teaching can expose gaps in your own knowledge that you might have never thought you had. Take the time to help others, to share with them and answer their questions. You’ll be helping yourself in the process.

Take Some Time To Dream

Every once in awhile stop what you’re doing and think about where you want to be. Think about what you love to do, what you’ve got a passion for. Reflect on yourself and dream about what the future holds. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the grind that we lose site not only of the place we want to be, but the path we’re taking to get there.

Just Do It

I know, it’s cheesy, but it’s true. If you want to succeed at anything you first have to make the choice to do so. Sometimes heading out on a path with no guidance is very daunting, but you’ll never get to where you want to be if you don’t even take that first step.

8 Tips For An Amazing Mentor Relationship

Many successful people attribute at least part of their success to having a mentor. The right mentor can provide advice and connections that help their mentee reach heights that would be impossible alone.

Here are some pieces of advice on mentorship, with perspectives from successful tech professionals who have seen its benefits firsthand.

How to build a strong mentorship relationship.

Photo courtesy of Pexels.com

1. Mentorship requires intentional investments of time and energy; you get what you put in.

Being a mentee is not a passive role. When you have a mentor, it’s your job to define your own goals, cultivate the relationship, seek out advice, attend meetings or events you’re invited to, and so on.

“Building a strong network of mentors requires commitment of time and energy, but with these types of relationships, you absolutely get out of them what you put in,” says Andrew Rubin, cofounder & CEO of Illumio. “The more you know yourself, what you are good at, what you are not, the more value you and your mentors will get out of the relationship. Then make time to invest in those relationships.”

Says Brett Caine, CEO of Urban Airship, “Mentor relationships must be tended to and are constantly evolving. Those experiences and discussions culminate in a stronger bond to navigate more complex life or business discussions in the future.”

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2. Experienced perspectives are invaluable for young careers and companies.

While mentorship can be valuable at any stage of a career, it’s especially important when the mentee doesn’t have as much personal experience in the industry. With a mentor, they can benefit from the insights gained through years of experience–without having to spend years of trial and error themselves.

“When I first started my career, I discounted the importance of experience,” says Mark Schulze, cofounder of Clover & VP of Business Development at First Data. “A strong mentor has the experience to help a startup avoid the pitfalls and identify possibly paths to success. Often entrepreneurs feel like there isn’t time, but the time and trouble you can save by working with a good mentor is invaluable.”

Vivek Ravisankar, cofounder and CEO of HackerRank, still experiences this firsthand in his career. “As a first-time founder, I look to people who have lived through the experiences and challenges that I face every day in building and scaling my company. I’ve found it invaluable to have a board of advisors who have experience scaling companies and can provide valuable, actionable advice.”

3. The best mentors are the ones who can fill gaps in your skillset. Don’t seek a mentor who’s your clone.

Every entrepreneur has their own strengths and weaknesses. And while mentors can certainly help make the strengths even stronger, it’s usually even more valuable to have someone who can give advice in areas where you’re struggling.

“Entrepreneurship is essentially about constantly learning, and having great mentors is crucial to learning fast,” says Jyoti Bansal, founder and CEO of BIG Labs. “In particular, it’s important for for a mentor to supplement the strengths that the entrepreneur brings to the table. For example–I came to the game as a strong technologist, but had to learn about the science of enterprise sales, finance/operations, etc. An entrepreneur should always select a mentor that fills the gaps in his/her experience and skill set.”

4. You don’t always have to follow a mentor’s advice–but listen to it and evaluate it.

One important thing to understand about mentorship is that the mentor can’t live your life for you. They’re there to provide advice and perspective and make you think differently–not make unilateral decisions for you. “Counsel need not always be followed, but should always be carefully considered,” advises Caine.

“The role of the mentor is to make you reflect, not to give you advice or answers. Helping you ask the right questions–that’s real mentorship,” explains Marten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne.

5. Anyone can be a mentor–even without knowing it.

If you go through life with the perspective that you have something to learn from everyone you meet, you’ll collect a lot of informal mentors along the way.

“In my own life and career, I have had numerous mentors, most of them accidental, and many of them unaware that I saw them as mentors,” says Mickos. “At one point I decided that any person I meet will be treated by me as a mentor for the time the interaction lasts. In an Uber or Lyft, the driver can be my mentor for a few minutes. Among friends, I seek out mentorship moments. I even have fantasy mentors, i.e. I envision myself being mentored by someone I admire (for instance, Winston Churchill) and I try to figure out what questions that mentor would ask me. It works!”

6. Diversity of mentorship is important.

It’s common to have one person you regard as a primary mentor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out a variety of perspectives on a more informal basis as well.

Susan Liu, Principal at Scale Venture Partners, says, “At Scale Venture Partners, half of our investing partners are women and all of the men are naturalized citizens. Having such a diverse set of mentors has helped me realize that there isn’t a cookie-cutter for success in VC, or any industry for that matter. This gives me confidence in my own career path, and has helped shape the way I think about investing and entrepreneurship.”

Rubin also encourages seeking out mentors who bring other perspectives to light: “I always encourage people to find mentors who you not only trust to be sources of counsel throughout your career, but also who bring a different point of view to your own.”

7. There are specific things you can do to being a good mentee.

Often, people consider the “burden” of mentorship to be on the mentor. But mentees can take responsibility for cultivating the experience of mentorship too.

“The biggest difference between people having a successful mentor relationship boils down to initiative,” says Tyler Perry, partner at Bateman Group: “Many thoughtful pieces have been written about how to be a good mentor, but there is less attention on how to be a good mentee. When I look at those that I have mentored and those that are getting a lot out of the program have some clear similarities:

  • They thoughtfully select the right person.
  • They establish the framework of the relationship.
  • They work at the relationship.
  • They are prepared with specific questions, areas for feedback, and requests for support.”

8. Mentorship is beneficial for the mentors too.

Finally, just as the responsibilities of mentorship are shared by mentees, the benefits are shared by mentors.

“The most successful mentorships are the ones that are a two-way experience where both sides benefit from the relationship,” says Caine. “In these relationships, the mentor experiences satisfaction and new perspectives by providing guidance and insight to the person seeking advice, while the mentee gains the benefit of experienced advice.”

“We tend to think that mentorship was designed to help the mentees, the up-and-coming. But mentorship helps the mentor too,” adds Mickos. “To be a mentor makes you a more understanding human being. It keeps your mind young and your skills fresh. Successful people who don’t start to mentor others will over time lose touch with their own excellence. Mentoring someone connects you back to the original you who became so excellent.”

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.”

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