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). But, what I believe was most helpful were the people who saw something in me and invested in my career.

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 gift. I was lucky have started receiving these gifts early in my career, as they have been very valuable both personally and professionally.

As a mentee, you often do not recognize either the value of what you are receiving, or the effort going into providing that gift to you. Its only years later that you fully appreciate what others have done for you.

In my first programming job I had a manager who had me work with people, would follow-up every time to ask what I had learned, and one day gave me my first project. I had six months experience, this was a big project for an automotive customer (the first customer loyalty coupon system for a major auto manufacturer back in late 1980’s), and it had to be delivered in six months. He let me build it, checked to see if I had questions, would provide feedback and direction if I asked, but pretty much left me alone.

After two months I thought I was finished. He picked the system apart, showing me the flaws and discussing the logic and reasoning behind my decisions. He told me I still had time and asked me to do it again. After another two months or so he told me this would work, and would be acceptable from anyone else. He reminded me that I still had time. When I came back with the third iteration system he reviewed it, smiled, and said that he could not have done this better himself. I learned so much in those six months.

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 (Jim) 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.

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?