Investing in Others – Becoming a Mentor

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I have been very fortunate throughout my career. There have been incredible opportunities, risks with big rewards, and lessons learned from mistakes and failure (e.g., one of the biggest lessons learned early is that most mistakes will not kill you, and therefore you can find a way to recover from them). In hindsight, I believe was has been most valuable in shaping my career are the people who saw something in me and invested in my career – my mentors.

None of these people had to help me. It’s possible that they did so for their own benefit (i.e., the better I do my job the easier it is for them), but I believe they were passing along a valuable gift. I was lucky have been given these gifts early in my career as they have been invaluable both personally and professionally.

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As a mentee may not recognize either the value of what you are receiving, or the effort that has gone into providing that gift to you. It is only years later that you fully appreciate what others have done for you.

In my first programming job I had a manager (Jim) who assigned me to work with different key people and would follow-up every time to ask what I had learned. Then one day he gave me my first project. I was excited but anxious because I did not want to fail my mentor.

I only had six months of experience and this was a big project for an important automotive customer (Subaru, for the first customer loyalty coupon system for a major auto manufacturer in late 1980s). It was a stretch for me, and the system had to be production ready in six months.

He let me build it, checked daily to see if I had questions, would provide feedback and direction if I asked, but pretty much left me alone. He seemed much more calm and confident in my success than I did at the time.

After two months I thought I was finished. We reviewed everything and he picked the system apart – showing me the flaws and then discussing the logic and reasoning behind my decisions. We spent half a day on this exercise and it was only years later that I realized that he was helping me learn more than validating the system design.

After another two months or so we reviewed the second iteration of this system. He told me while this version would work and would be acceptable from anyone else, I still had time remaining and he was confident that I could do even better next time. He provided a couple of tips about high-level areas he focused on while designing and developing systems and left it at that.

When I came back with the third iteration system he reviewed it, smiled, and said that he could not have done this better himself. At first I was proud of successfully completing my first independent project, but later I realized how much I had learned in those six months. This experience had provided me with a lifelong benefit as well as provided the motivation to help others in a similar manner. My mentor was (and still is) a great leader!

As a manager this person had so many reasons not to give me the project, to just tell me what to do, and to not let me redo it (twice). From a short-term management perspective what he did was wasteful. But, from a big picture perspective he was doing things that helped me create so much more value for the company for the 3-4 years I continued to work there. The benefit certainly outweighed the cost, and this person was wise enough to see that.

Several years ago there was a young woman in Australia that contacted me via LinkedIn, asking for suggestions on improving her skills in order to advance her career. I gave her many assignments over the course of a year and she did amazing work. She advanced in her company, later relocated to another country, and then switched industries. She currently holds a high-level position and has been very successful. It made me feel good knowing that my efforts played a small part in her advancement.

From my perspective it all comes down to how you view people and relationships. Are they like commodities that are used and replaced as needed, or are they assets that can grow in value?  I like to think that I have helped the “career portfolio” of several people – which helps ensure that business is not a zero sum game. Hopefully those people will do the same thing, creating leverage on those investments.

So, what do you think?