How to Make the Most of Mentoring Wisdom
Every corporate function incorporates science and metrics with the subtle art of dealing with people. Consequently, every corporate career path benefits from hand-me-down wisdom through mentoring. But if there’s a professional lifelong journey that benefits more from those “Have you looked at it this way?” conversations than the HR profession, I certainly can’t think of it at the moment.
No matter how we have tried over the decades to codify, automate and measure effective behaviors in HR, it’s still the people side of the business. And that’s simply not going to change—unless AI completely hijacks HR. So, true effectiveness in HR will always rely on influence; prudence; diplomacy; gentle, probing curiosity; and an exquisite sense of timing that can only be cultivated over time with experience and seasoned intuition. You can’t learn these things from a textbook. And you can’t really learn them all by yourself, without making tragic “I’ll never do that again” mistakes.
It’s much better to rely on quality mentors than to use your employee population as your own personal laboratory in developing wisdom. But even finding and using mentors requires a deft touch on your part. And then there’s the matter of deciding whether to follow your mentor’s advice.
In this month’s Advice From the Top, I speak with three seasoned HR professionals about the mentors in their lives who made the most difference in their career journeys. I also ask them how young HR professionals can tell whether or not they’re ready to become mentors themselves. After all, in HR, being a mentor can be just as valuable as having a mentor.
Vice president of HR
La Rosa’s Inc.
My most influential mentor didn’t even know he was my mentor because we didn’t formalize it, which was actually the beauty of that relationship. I think one of the main flaws of typical mentoring relationships is that there is often too much structure around them, with set lists of to do’s, outcomes and deadlines. What we need most out of a mentor is someone who will point out when we’re about to step into tar; someone who will pick us up when we fall because we will fall; someone who will show us the ropes—those unwritten rules. And we need someone safe to vent to.
My mentor saw something in me and decided that it was more important to simply invest time in me than tell me exactly what to do. We approached it this way: I would never be a bother to him, and he would never be a bother to me. We were available to each other on an ongoing basis, instead of having formally set-aside times to meet, which is the typical mentoring approach.
One of the most memorable things he taught me was how to lead in the midst of interruptions, rather than how to stop interruptions. Business is constantly about being interrupted, so it’s more valuable to know how to just roll with it instead of getting frustrated by it.
People can become mentors much sooner than they are likely to believe. The first person who spotted my potential as a mentor was actually the leader of my son’s Cub Scout den. She saw something in me and encouraged me to give it a shot. Young people really do have something to offer, even though they might be tempted to think they’re not ready. What the younger ones need more than anything is to have someone give them permission to take on that role, to believe in them.
My approach at work is to pair up more tenured employees with younger ones, with the express purpose of making both of them each other’s mentors. This way, I can be sure I’m not overlooking some very talented younger people who have a lot to invest in their co-workers.
Vice president, chief of people and brand officer
PEMCO Insurance Co.
My most influential mentor was the Starbucks general counsel who told me to follow my heart. When I was leading HR for IT at Starbucks, I was being pitched by three executives for my next HR role in the company. Each one had a really attractive opportunity for me and put forward compelling arguments as to why I could accept their respective offers. The general counsel was the fourth person who invited me to lead strategy and operations for legal. Instead of pressuring me to understand the strategic importance of the opportunity, or that I absolutely had to take her offer, she simply told me to follow my heart.
I ended up taking her opportunity because, by saying “Follow your heart,” she demonstrated that she had my best interests in mind. She became not only my boss but also my mentor. And now, when I mentor other people when they’re facing a challenging career decision, I give them the same advice she gave me: “Follow your heart.”
As for younger employees’ role as mentors themselves, we look for mentoring opportunities for them even when they’re interns. You’re never too new in your career to mentor. You have unique experiences, skills and backgrounds to always have something valuable to offer. When younger employees have an opportunity to give to and teach others, it helps them with their confidence, and they can recognize that they already have the ability to make a significant difference in the organization.
Mentoring also helps them start developing their brand early in their career. It gives them the opportunity to start developing their core values set, which they’ll be known by their entire career.
The Nally Group
Sometimes, mentoring advice can be really impactful, even when it’s wrong. Back in 1986, when I was wondering what I was going to do with my bachelor’s in psychology, I said to my mentor at the time, “This profession of human resources seems to be taking on more growth and being more strategic.”
And he said, “HR is really for administrators and for women. You don’t want to go into HR.”
This was a really powerful mentoring moment for me. I valued his mentoring guidance; he was business-oriented and knew how organizations work. But I knew what I wanted from a career in HR and how I was going to approach it. His opinion helped me clarify my position: I really did want to go into this field, and I wanted to be part of its evolution.
Nothing says you have to follow your mentor’s advice. The first thing you have to do is ask yourself, “How does this point of view land with me? Do I want to follow this advice? Or do I want to take a different angle?”
Mentors can learn from mentees. They are two-way relationships. Successful mentoring relationships are built on each partner knowing what they want to teach and learn from the other. Even if your career is still young, your own experience and path so far will give you some kind of expertise to share with others. Start communicating those benefits so people will know how to seek you out for powerful, useful, meaningful mentor/mentee relationships.
When I think of HR as a step-by-step, day-in and day-out experience, the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride comes to mind—complete with RUSes (rodents of unusual size). Am I the only one?
There are so many opportunities to take the ill-advised step. The only way to get through? Get the best advice available to you. And that can only be had by following in the footsteps of those who have taken the journey before you.
Then, as you go through it yourself, you will cleverly map out the hazard zones in your mind so that you can pass on the wisdom to the young talent coming up after you. No one is ever too young to be the guide, at least part of the way.