Rethinking Mentors

Tags: mentorsmentoring

At wisnet, we love sharing our experiences, ideas and even reflections for the betterment of our own team –and our community! Check out the “Growing the Next Generation of Women in Management” talk on mentorship and overcoming challenges by our art director, Jenny Knuth. Jenny had the privilege of sharing her experience with Women In Management – Fond du Lac Chapter this June.

Twenty six years ago, I was described as a timid, quiet little mouse. I recall remarks from Mrs. Bitter, my second grade elementary teacher, telling my parents that I barely talked in class and when I did, she could barely make out my squeaks and whispers. I was quite shy and VERY introverted, and to this day, I’m not quite sure why….

Over the years, I did find my place and voice in many different settings. Fast forward to kicking off my career in the design/marketing industry and I can recall the essence of that “mouse” still present in my work and interactions. I struggled with how to prove myself, and at that time – in my head – unless I had felt I had something worthwhile or different to say, I didn’t say much of anything at all.

Looking at present day … with my interactions at work and in the community – yes, of course there is some anxiety in a new or different setting, but I don’t let that stop me. I now joke that if you ask for my opinion, you can’t get me to stop talking.

So what changed?

Well, I’m a strong believer in the idea that the person we are today is not who we were 5-10-15+ years ago – or who we’ll be in the future. There is a great TED Talk by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert about “The Psychology of Your Future Self.” where he talks about our disconnect with our future self… specifically how we don’t see ourselves changing much at all – be it our values, personality or even personal preferences. But the truth is, it all does … and  more than we think. He emphasizes “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

I was a work-in-progress in 2nd grade – obviously.

I was not “finished” when I started my career.

And, I’m still not. And, neither are any of you… be it you’re 18 – right out of high school and ready to conquer the world; in your early/mid 20’s and kicking off your career with uncertainty; in your 30’s and just feeling like you’ve finally figured it out; in your 40’s and 50’s, settling into your mastery and teaching others; or in your 60’s and beyond, still looking for that growth & challenge.

Throughout that span of ages, change is inevitable.

A lot of that change may be uncontrollable. But some is – specifically growth as an individual.

You can let that change hinder you, be afraid of it – or choose to embrace it in all of its messiness – the twists, turns, backpedals and all.

For me, embracing and encouraging change in myself is what allowed me to overcome challenges and learn a lot along the way.

I personally can attribute that back to 3 things:

  1. Experience – which is the learnings you pick up along the way
  2. Mentors – the people in our lives who help guide us
  3. Mindset – one’s internal thought process, mental model — personally developed, but can grow with personal work and/or external influence

Life and work experiences brought a lot of confidence – which I believe most would echo. However, unless you have a time machine or a crystal ball, you just can’t control or foresee what those experiences will exactly be. What I could control was the influence & impact of mindset and mentors in my life … and those things were extraordinary in helping me grow and change for the better.

Those 3 things – experience + mindset + mentors – help me overcome the following (for the most part):

  • A fear of ridicule — the social fear of not projecting a good enough image of ourselves
  • A feeling that I had to do everything perfectly and make everyone happy in the process
  • The idea that I couldn’t show any signs of weakness or too much emotion in my work. Vulnerability was and is hard for me.
  • The mindset that I aspired to be a leader, but that I didn’t feel I had the charisma to do so … or the title to do so
  • Thinking I was alone in creating and shaping my personal growth and professional future
Which brings me to my mentors….

When I was first asked to share my experience with mentorship, I had an unexpected reaction of “Sure! I’d love to” knowing it would be a great reflection – followed by “Wait, what the heck do I know about mentorship!?!” What ensued was some reflection, reading, and you guessed it, mentorship guidance which lead me to define and rethink what mentoring meant to me and my growth over the years.

At that point, I had another intriguing internal response to the concept of mentors in my life: the idea of having them was important, and I knew I did … but I was also quite intimidated by the idea. After all, another truth –I’ve NEVER asked someone to be a mentor! I credit this to the idea that on the surface I followed more of the traditional definition of a mentor relationship – where someone “more experienced or more knowledgeable helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person.”

As a mentee, isn’t that scary?!?

Admitting we know less than perhaps we could/should, pulling down our defenses and welcoming critique with open arms. Perhaps even hearing somethings about ourselves that we might not want to hear, but totally need to. Eeeek. Definitely some strong mindset and willpower needed there!

And as a mentor…

being one just sounds like a lot of work when we’re all so busy – work, family, community commitments, you name it. And, what do I get out of it?

Then came redefining and rethinking a mentor.

As soon as I broke mentorship down to a conversation – the simple exchange of questions, ideas, thoughts with the goal of supporting & empowering individuals, I experienced a sense of ease & clarity around mentorship – specifically regarding all the women in my life who have helped shape or guide me in one way or another.

I also came upon a number of revelations or highlights that can help us all be more conscious of the mentor relationships we may have in our lives currently AND more intentional in our pursuit for that kind of guidance in our growth.

#1 – Mentors are not always named.

Shouldn’t come as a surprise … as I stated I’ve never asked anyone to be my mentor – nor have I officially acknowledged them as one, until writing this up. I’ve had some great women role models, teachers, and leaders in my life, but my takeaway was how important it is to contemplate and leverage the relationships I currently have. I realized this meant that the mentor roles we seek/need may not just be someone “above” us, but could be individuals to our left and to our right – our colleagues in work, in the community, that peer support network, and our friends.

But not just any friend or colleague…
Who do you go to when you need to think/talk through an idea or issue?

Who cares for you but will be real & honest with you?

Who makes you feel like your best self?

#2 – Understand your intent or need.

My mentors over the years have fit many different purposes and places in my life.

  • Sharing industry insights & knowledge – more of the typical coworker/new hire mentorship
  • Fueling ideas and igniting passions
  • Providing clarity and honesty – someone who asks difficult questions and challenges thinking
  • Support in a tough or uncertain time – the cheerleader who told me I was a rockstar when I needed it the most

As mentors, we don’t need to be experts in all areas. And as mentees, we need to realize it might be beneficial to seek out 4-5 different mentors in the area they can help most.

#3 – Mentors can take on many different shapes & forms.

It’s not always a long-term relationship nor does it always incorporate regular communications.

Many women come to mind who I might only have an in depth interaction with a couple times of year – some planned, some unexpected, but always extremely helpful.

In one of the more recent mentee experiences I’ve had, we’d never met in person … only talked over the phone. But, the relationship and foundation for trust was there. On one call in particular this wonderful woman acknowledged my struggles of feeling like I didn’t measure up. She continued to share a story from her past. She ended the story by passing on something someone had once told her.

She said, “Jenny, you are enough.”
She left a lasting impact on me.
Who knows if our paths will cross again.

#4 – Mentors may not have all the answers.

They do not have to think their job is to give advice. As with my previous, it’s the sharing of their stories, experiences, lessons learned. Or providing connections to the right or different people. And, for me the most beneficial mentors, have been those who ask questions of me and don’t always expect a response. The value in that exchange comes in the reflections that follow – be it clearing what’s on my head or heart in that conversation, or spending time on my own sitting in the question.

#5 – You don’t have to look too far for a mentor…

Yes, your inner self/inner wisdom can be a mentor! It all comes back to mindset and our self talk. And guess what? Your inner mentor is not going to be too busy to talk to you (at least it shouldn’t be!)

A little out there maybe, but think about it … who usually stands in your way when it comes to change, or stepping outside of our comfort zone? Many analogies can be made when it comes to being conscious of your mindset: the voices on your left/right shoulders … I’ve heard others reference it as “the annoying roommate”, or the now you being mentored by your future you. Initially I thought I might be a bit crazy for this idea but jumped online and found a great quote:

By dialing down your inner critic and turning up your inner mentor, you’ll find that sometimes the advice you need is hidden within – hushed by your own fears or lingering beyond your personal comfort zone.

The takeaway: Some days the most important conversations we have are the conversations we have with ourself. What mindset are you going to feed?
The Challenge

In the pursuit to show up as our best, true self in everything we do – from our relationships at home, to those at work & in our community, I’ve challenged myself in regard to the three tenets shared earlier and ask you to join me in:

  1. Mindset. As women we really need to stop judging each other so harshly, but we especially need to stop letting others judgement of ourselves cause so much anxiety. We must make decisions based on what we want to do… not what we feel others want us to do. Trust and listen to your gut/intuition/inner mentor – the power is there. A must read if you struggle in this area is Mindset, by Carol Dweck
  2. Experience. Experience is time. And time flies by, so it’s important to make space/time for this work in your day or week. It truly is a commitment.Not ready to be your own mentor or seek out one? Start out small… watch a TED talk, absorb as much as you can at a conference, listen to a podcast, curl up with a good book … and allow that source to challenge your thinking or to get you thinking more deeply about a topic, issue or frustration you currently face.As a mentor — are you concerned about finding time to provide guidance to another? Highly recommend you check out  One Minute Mentoring by Ken Blanchard & Claire Diaz-Ortiz – which was actually a joint writing venture between a mentor and a mentee. The book features some great tips about a more structured mentorship agreement with suggestions for developing an understanding and outlining commitments.
  3. Lastly, mentors. When it comes to your mentors – past or present – show gratitude. Identify those mentors who may be unnamed or discovered over the years, months, days and thank them! Let them know how much they’ve impacted you. You’ll make them feel amazing. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you hear back.

By identifying my mentors, embracing change, the good and bad experiences, and converting self-talk that was holding me back into my own, internal mentor, I was able to see myself grow from that timid, quiet little mouse in Mrs. Bitter’s second grade class into someone much different today.

How have you grown and changed over the years? And, what’s your plan for continual growth?