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Thoughts on Mentoring

I have had a number of mentors in my career and in my avocations. These are people who have had a significant influence on me by guiding me through some explorations intellectually as well as personally. Some offered advice or ideas openly; others didn’t even know they were injecting thoughts or skills into me at the time. I remember some of them fondly, and others have become a blur, but I know they all had some influence over the way I approached things in my life.

There are those mentors who lean toward teaching more than mentoring, and those who lean toward guidance rather than teaching. The difference is some guide you in self discovery and others give you a specific path to follow. It is good at different times of your life to have one or the other or both.

I have carried it forward by actively mentoring and teaching when it is possible. In my career, I have mentored a wide variety of people in different ways. There have been brand new folks out of graduate school as well as lower level staff who were less experienced. I have listened to them and offered advice and/or encouragement. Some just wanted a sounding board, while others wanted specific recommendations and steps to take for a specific goal. No matter the level or the subject, people who sought out mentors were probably those who needed them the least. In other words, those folks who didn’t want mentoring probably needed it more.

My employer announced an official mentoring program several years ago. I wondered if institutionalizing it would somehow tarnish the idea since many times the processes add too much red tape without much help. To their credit, they did some training and offered some lunch funding and it has been helpful. The other, unofficial mentoring is still going on as I find the “Millennial” (Y) generation much more tolerant of mentoring than the “X” generation. Perhaps the difference in age between the Y’s and me changes the dynamic as I am more a grandfather figure than a father figure to them.

My experience has been limited in some ways so I try to mentor in a more general way. Problems that younger workers have are still the problems that I had at their age, but usually with some sort of a twist. The economic times cause different specifics. Career goals can be more modest in the short term since Y’s tend to move from job-to-job more readily than us boomers. Companies don’t see workers as permanent fixtures anymore, but as assets and liabilities. This is different than when I was growing up though some would argue that it was the same. I don’t think so and try to guide people in ways that would maximize their possibilities for a productive and happy career. A main theme is looking at it holistically, not just a job specific to one employer. If it works out for employer and employee together that’s great, if not, it usually works out anyway.

There are several basic themes that have permeated my mentoring experiences. One is the importance of constant learning, not just of the specifics of a job, but the overall subject and the related fields. It isn’t enough to know something like IT security. You also need to know those fields around it so you understand the relationship of ideas within the fields. You can’t know intuitively what is important if you don’t know how things relate. It is so easy to get complacent and feel you have too much to do to continue your education.

Another basic theme is learning to trust. Employees seem to have lost some of the trust in institutions, management, teams, and other individuals. They seem to be looking for an ulterior motive for things rather than taking a more stoic view of circumstances. The polarization within many institutions seems to have gotten into the psyche of the population so that it is hard to trust. Guiding people through these thoughts as a mentor without inflaming the situation can be a challenge. You have to be on guard against your inner cynic.

One theme that I have seen, but haven’t experienced is one of being in a hurry. Many younger workers seem to be in a big hurry all the time to get ahead in their career and their personal life. It is hard as an older person to keep from patronizing someone who you know will start to recognize the futility of this as they go through stages in their life. They have trouble enjoying the current as they are fighting to get somewhere else. The only thing I can do as a mentor is listen and offer guidance when it is requested. I still have trouble with this one.

I would be interested in the experiences of other mentors inside and outside my area. What types of approaches were the most effective in general? What approaches were least effective or destructive? What were the biggest challenges?

Categories: Career, Miscellaneous
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