Before we get into the Art of Mentoring, I would like to first expand on all things mentoring. There are so many misconceptions and misinterpretations of what this word actually means and what exactly happens in a mentoring relationship.
Mentoring can be viewed in simple terms as a healthy, intellectual, and mutually rewarding conversation between two individuals. When I say two individuals, I am referring to one person having experience, skill, and competence in a particular domain, and another person who aspires to improve his or her game in that same domain. You can see that I am not at all referring to one individual being older or younger than the other. Age has no role to play here. What is at play is what I call ‘Wisdom Asymmetry.’
One individual has a better grasp and knowledge than the other, and mentoring is a means of bridging that asymmetry in a positively reinforcing manner. Both individuals benefit in such a partnership founded on sharing and learning, and I will expand in future chapters on the benefits of mentoring to both mentors and mentees.
Mentoring in my own experience is a form of accelerated learning. There is a Japanese proverb that reads, “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great mentor.” There are times in our lives when we have to learn on our own, and other times when we must learn as fast as we can.
When you are in school, you are expected to learn the concepts by attending classes, reading the lessons on your own, and doing practice problems. At the end of the semester, you are tested to demonstrate how much you have learned. If you have questions, you attend office hours with your teacher, or ask a fellow student to go over the concepts one more time, so it improves your own understanding.
The situation is quite different when you work for a company or are building your startup as an entrepreneur. In a company, you are paid for your time, which means the company must do everything to make sure you learn the skills of the job quickly.
As an entrepreneur, time for you is money, and sometimes more than money. You want to pick up on key skills that you are lacking in as fast as you can so you can grow your company rapidly.
In each of these situations, getting help and guidance from the right individuals is vital to accelerating your learning and accomplishments.
When two individuals come together with the right intentions and trust, knowledge is sure to flow. That’s exactly what mentoring is—a relationship of sharing and learning, happening simultaneously.
(IMAGE/ILLUSTRATION: A day in the life of a corporate and startup- corporate guy is on a hamster wheel and startup guy is carrying a rock to the mountain)
Now that I have unwrapped what mentoring is all about, let me address the common myths surrounding mentoring. When a word is overused as much as the word ‘mentoring,’ people tend to have their own interpretations and internalize it differently, many times incorrectly. I want to address these myths head-on before moving on to anything else. If there is one section you read in this book, let this be the one.
Common Myths around Mentoring
I have come across and spoken to thousands of students and professionals in my career. Over the last few years, mentoring is what I lived and breathed. In the process, I have identified five myths that are deeply entrenched in people’s minds. Even people with decades of experience and phenomenal success under their belt still carry these misconceptions, and I am compelled to address them here.
Myth #1: Mentoring is only good for mentees
This is the most common misconception. People think that as a mentor, all you do is give to the other person, because you are such a generous, magnanimous person. But if you really dig deeper, it is you as the mentor who gains far more, because you are getting real validation for your knowledge. Your own understanding and expertise improves as a result of working with your mentees. You get to see how other people view the world, and the challenges they are facing. This is one instance where you get recognized for helping another individual overcome challenges and get ahead. As a mentor, you will also learn something new, because your mentees’ situations or the challenges they face may force you to think differently. In a good mentoring relationship, you and your mentee can simultaneously learn from each other’s strengths and experiences. A good mentoring relationship is never a one-way street.
I have posed this question to hundreds of highly successful professionals: “Can you imagine leaving this planet with all the wisdom and experience in your head?” 100% of the time, I get a nice chuckle as a response and a big NO! Being a mentor is a great way to avoid keeping all of your knowledge with yourself. The beauty of sharing knowledge is that your knowledge not only remains within you, but also grows, while transferring huge benefits to other people. This is unlike sharing time or money, which you lose once you give them away.
In a recent conversation with Sheila Forte-Trammell, former global chief of mentoring at IBM and co-author of Intelligent Mentoring: How IBM Creates Value Through People, Knowledge and Relationships,” Sheila said, “Mentoring is a way to see your profession thrive long after you are gone.” What an amazing and deep statement. Who would want to be the last teacher, the last engineer, the last entrepreneur, the last artist, the last doctor, the last musician, or the last soccer player, etc., on the planet? No one! That is why mentoring is good for mentors, too
Myth #2: Mentoring takes a lot of time (for mentors)
Another big misconception I often hear from mentors is that mentoring takes too much time. And yes, I agree, any activity that is worth doing takes time. But in this busy world we live in, we have a way of finding time for those activities we enjoy, or for tasks that we have to do. People who claim they do not have time for mentoring are actually saying that they do not see value in mentoring.
If you choose the right mentoring matches from the start, the time you spend building those relationships will bring you nothing but immense value. A powerful mentoring conversation can be as short as five-to-ten minutes over the phone or video chat. Or it can happen over a 20-minute meeting with a clear agenda and focused conversation. The value lies in the quality of time spent, not the quantity. The value of mentoring should be measured by the incremental benefits generated for the mentee and the mentor, and not by the time spent by either of them. When you look at mentoring in this way, time will not become a factor or an excuse to say no to mentoring. I will share some examples of this in future chapters.
In my case, I spend an average of 30 minutes every other week with three or four of my mentees at any one time. I consider my time and conversations with mentees as my time away from my own work, and an opportunity to help others grow. I learn a lot from my mentees. My mentees make me feel valued for the knowledge I have, and what I am able to do for them. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I achieve success in my own pursuits. Working with my mentees and seeing them move ahead in their careers or startups gives me a sense of significance, which is priceless and worth my time. Thanks to mentoring, I have real stories to tell in my talks and interviews.
If you look at mentoring as a strategic way to grow in your career, it can be a lot of fun, and well worth your time, too. If you approach mentoring in this way, and when you master the concepts in this book, I hope you will never claim that you do not have enough time for mentoring. You will actually make time to get help and to help others.
Myth #3 – Mentoring is not a mainstream topic
Most media coverage surrounding mentoring in the 1990’s and 2000’s was related to social situations, e.g., mentoring for minorities, helping disadvantaged populations, and mentoring women to increase diversity in the workforce. But when I interviewed successful entrepreneurs and executives about the one thing that helped them become who they are today, I found there was far more to the story. Universally, they all talked about other key individuals—fellow entrepreneurs, former CEOs or bosses, professors—who had an impact on them by helping to navigate their careers and teaching them to make key decisions at critical points during their careers. Take for example, Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico. In a 2008 interview*, she said “If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today. I am a product of great mentoring and great coaching.” Nooyi relates a personal story of how Pepsico’s then president, Steve Reinemund, played a key role in steering her career trajectory towards eventually gaining the broad experience she needed to be named as the Chairman and CEO.
I discussed several other examples in the Introduction of this book. Even Aristotle, Plato, Beethoven, Einstein—all considered great men and experts in their lines of work—sought guidance and wisdom from mentors. We simply cannot solve every problem and obstacle that comes our way; sometimes we require the intelligence and perspective of others to find our way. Mentoring has always been—and should remain—a mainstream topic.
Myth #4: Mentoring cannot be done online
Before the Internet, everything we did was restricted to the physical world. Talking to friends, shopping, meeting someone, sharing photos, applying for jobs or attending an interview—everything required us to be physically present. With technology, all that has changed. Even dating went online with the phenomenal success of sites like Match.com, eHarmony, Tinder. We live in a highly connected world where distance no longer matters.
In exactly the same way, mentoring can be conducted online and virtually; all it takes is for two individuals from any part of the world to trust each other’s knowledge, aspirations, and values, and have the desire to connect and have conversations with the purpose of learning from each other. I have had mentees as far away as India who I have worked with actively. Distance is not a factor when it comes to understanding what another person needs, and then being able to provide resources, perspective, and new opportunities for them.
Mentoring is certainly more powerful when conducted in person, but it should not be restricted to face-to-face interactions, especially in today’s highly connected world. What if the person who can best help you lives in a different zip code, or city, or even country? What if you do not live in big cities or economic hubs like Silicon Valley or London or Dubai or Tokyo, and live in a distant small town or village?
In 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited me to deliver a plenary talk, and I chose to speak on ‘Mentoring Beyond Borders,’ where professionals defy geographical limits to mentor youth and students in all parts of the world. Mentors are able to create significant impact by transferring wisdom across borders, without actually having to travel there physically. The idea was acknowledged widely, and today it is actually happening at one of my companies, MentorCloud, where mentors and mentees are connecting across geographical locations.
In summary, mentoring is
- Beneficial to mentors
- A valuable and rewarding use of your time, if done properly
- A strategic approach to accelerating your learning and career
- Equally valuable and impactful in-person or online
1.3. Is Mentoring for Everyone?
History shows that most successful people have had one or more mentors who have had a phenomenal impact on their career.
As human beings, we all have something to share and something to learn, so we can all benefit from mentorship. There is always more that you don’t know in this world than you do know. Mentoring enables you to share what you know and what you are passionate about, as well as learn what you need to know in order to get ahead in your career. Mentoring is a form of learning and sharing that is not restricted to any certain time in your career.
You could be in high school, college, early career, starting a business, late career, or retired. No matter which phase in life you find yourself in, you can benefit from powerful mentoring relationships.