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Why You Should Mentor

I’m a major proponent of mentorship. And in this area (unlike my support of punctuality as a concept), I actually walk the talk. At any given time, I am a mentor (both formally and informally) to a handful of HR students, recent grads or new HR folks, and I’ve benefited enormously from being mentored myself for many years. I’m a member of the volunteer committee that runs my local HR Association’s mentorship program, and I regularly encourage friends and colleagues to devote their time to this noble pursuit.

There is little (beyond overt nepotism) that can super-charge someone’s career like mentorship. If you’ve ever thought “I wish I knew then what I know now…”, then understand that being mentored is as close as someone can ever get to realizing that hope.

The Part Where I Actually Quote Donald Rumsfeld

Mentorship can be a powerful tool to advance your knowledge and growth in any profession, but I’ve long thought that it has particular value for HR professionals because of the ambiguity involved in dealing with people. That is to say that an ambitious HR rookie can do everything possible to gain knowledge about addressing employee relations issues, resolving conflicts, advising managers or conducting investigations, but the cruel truth is that only experience can teach you how to apply that knowledge appropriately in the infinite range of situations you might encounter. Trial and error is a painful but effective teacher. The only way that I know of to cheat a little is through being mentored.  And that’s because good mentors open up a window into how someone who’s been through that trial and error sees the world. Their experience can, in a small way, become your experience too. The very best mentors tell you what you need to know, not just what you think you need to know. They reveal what former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld clumsily called the “unknown unknowns” (sorry Mom- yes, I think he’s a jerk too).

The Many Benefits of Being a Mentor

At the risk of sounding enormously cliché, the more I learn, the more I realize how woefully little I know. It’s a humbling part of growing older, but one that also becomes less upsetting as one simultaneously realizes that most other people know just as little as you do – that you’re not the only one who is occasionally paralyzed by a sense that you have no idea what you’re doing! But being a mentor can remind you that you do indeed know quite a lot, or more than you did in the past anyway. And sharing some of that knowledge with another human being is an enormously gratifying feeling. Not just because it makes me feel selfless or smart, but rather because it reminds me of the hundreds of random interactions, conversations or acts of generosity that, strung together, have brought me to where I am today. We’ve all had those moments, when someone helped us out, in ways minor or major, when they didn’t have to.  And there is something very satisfying in evening the scales out, in reflecting back the goodwill and generosity that’s been shone upon us.

Set Your Knowledge Emitter to ‘Transmit’

So if you’ve read this far, I’d like to ask each of you to take a moment to think about the last time you shared some of your hard-won wisdom with someone else, or pointed someone in the right direction to solve a problem, or told someone what they should stop doing. And then I’d like to ask that you consider how you can seek out more opportunities to do that tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It doesn’t have to be some formal event, you don’t need to call anyone ‘grasshopper’, and you don’t have to have some profound, lasting truth to pass on. Just tell someone what you wish you’d known back then.

Image credit: bokkels via Flickr Creative Commons

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. AllenDavidov #

    Jane this was a great post. I wouldnt be where I am today without my mentors along the way, which is why I make it a point to give back in the same way. I mentor someone know.

    March 3, 2013
  2. Thanks Allen! Having a good mentor can be literally life changing, so I think it’s imperative to pass it on…

    March 3, 2013
  3. Jason Martin #

    Jane – as always, a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. As an OD geek who works across the organization I also look for people who are very much like I was at their age and stage. While it can be humbling to see such dramatic examples of my earlier self-defeating strategies, I can use my lessons to spare some younger folks from at least a little of the heartache that I both caused and experienced.

    Having the benefit of some hindsight, I can’t help but wonder what I’m doing right now that will lead to chagrin later – hence the continuing need for mentors of my own.

    March 4, 2013

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