It’s 6:00 am and as I check my iPhone, I notice a list of questions from a group of seniors at a nearby university that I agreed to mentor through one of their final classes. I am immediately reminded (when I see the timestamp on the email) of the fact that I am no longer young enough to work past midnight and still get up early. I am also reminded of the fact that despite the full day looming ahead of me, I volunteered to help these kids and I promised to promptly reply to their emails. Why did I do this? Simply put, I did it because I have had the benefit of people who voluntarily mentored me, and I hope to give something back by, as the saying goes, paying it forward.
While agreeing to participate in a college mentoring program is easy, most mentoring opportunities are not so obvious. In fact, all of the people who mentored me did so in a very subtle way, with no recognition beyond my belated but sincere appreciation. Belated because I didn’t always understand that they were mentoring me until several years had passed, I would wake up one day, proud of “my” accomplishments and realize that I didn’t get there on my own. A characteristic shared by these people is desire not to be singled out for acknowledgement. In deference to that common trait, I won’t name names, but I do want to share a few techniques that they used, and that I am trying to adopt.
The Stupid Question – One of my mentors was famous for interrupting a meeting by saying “can I ask a stupid question.” Like the adage about lawyers, he never asked a question that he didn’t know the answer to. He asked questions for two reasons. First, he asked questions that he knew others in the room should be asking. He knew the answer but he knew I didn’t and he thought I should. He understood that I might think it really was a stupid question and that I might be too nervous to ask. Second, he asked questions when he wanted me or others to talk about something that we didn’t think the group would be interested in. He knew that the group was, or at least should be interested, and he would toss a softball question our way to drag us out of our shells.
Anti-Clique Behavior – Over a dozen years ago, I ventured into a meeting of a well-established organization that I thought I could benefit from. As soon as I walked in the room, I realized that I was a stranger among a group of people who knew each other very well. I felt out-of-place, and a little awkward. Within seconds, the man in charge of this organization came over, introduced himself, engaged me in conversation and then asked me to join him at his table. He made me feel welcome, and he allowed me to trade on his position in order to establish myself. He introduced me to some of the other members, and the process continued. Some shook my hand and moved on, but a couple seemed to make it a goal to encourage me within this organization.
Extending Authority – Another technique by a coworker was to nurture my growth by pushing me to meet his demands. During a period of intense financial pressure, this man made specific requests of my department that required me to ask for more money in my budget instead of agreeing to the recommendation that we all cut back. He was in a position to see beyond the current circumstances, and he knew that I could not. Without sharing his rationale, he caused me to get slightly ahead of the technology curve, and then he made me look good several years later when his strategy yielded his intended success.
In each case, and in many similar stories, the benefit of these efforts went to me. These people never took credit for their nurturing behavior. In addition, they continued to prod me forward and once I realized what they had done for me, I also recognized that they were doing the same thing for others. Then I realized that I have to do that too. Mentoring someone is one of the best things you can do with your time, and that is why you should do it. Don’t become a mentor for recognition or for some perceived tangible benefit; do it because you can. Accept the fact that you didn’t entirely pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, that you had help along the way. Return those cumulative favors and trust that the people you help will pay it forward when their time comes.