Power of Mentors

I’ve benefited from mentors for as long as I can remember. Parents, grandparents, and Boy Scout leaders during my childhood. However, I’d like to focus today on what I learned from three different mentors to-date in my career. None were formal mentors, although I reported to two of the three. Most of the things I’ve learned from these mentors are still aspirational for me. I am, like everyone else, a work in progress. I’m blessed to have had some terrific mentors. 

Trust and Delegation

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, I found a trainer/courseware developer at a small software company. I’d planned to be a secondary education teacher but found that teaching teenagers about the Civil War and prepositional phrases was a lot harder than the $20k a year was worth that the public schools were going to pay me. So I looked at other options and found a company that would pay me a salary that would allow me to provide food and shelter for my family without working a second job. 

While I worked at that first job I met my first professional mentor in my manager. I’ll call her “Kathleen.” Kathleen taught me the power of building trust and delegation. Kathleen had been with the company for a long time and also managed the customer service department. She was extremely busy, dealing with demanding customers and a large team of technical support reps and a small training team. I was young and ambitious, eager to prove myself. I found a passion for Learning & Development. Kathleen gave me just enough freedom to test myself but kept me from over extending. She didn’t use the phrase “fail fast and fail often” but that’s what she encouraged me to do. 

We started out with a training manual and a five-day face-to-face class that our customers almost always got for free. We expanded our modality capabilities, early in the 2000s, so that our internationally dispersed customer-base didn’t have to travel to Utah for training or pay for us to send a trainer to them. Instead, we implemented virtual training options. We also built live-action video training for the hardware components of product offerings, that we dispersed by CD. Looking back, neither of those things seem particularly innovative. But at the time, nobody in the company had considered that we didn’t absolutely need to talk to customers face-to-face in order to train them. 

Over time, as Kathleen and I learned to trust each other, she gradually allowed me to experiment and expand what we were capable of as a training team. We became a profit center for the company instead of the typical cost center training usually is. 

Know the Business and Show Up

Later, I worked with another manager who I’ll call “Bruce.” Bruce and I, at first glance, didn’t have a ton in common other than our careers. We worked together for a few years and eventually I reported to him for almost six years. Bruce taught me the value of embracing the industry in which we worked, which was insurance. Initially, I told myself that as an instructional designer I could rely on subject matter experts as I built content, but I started to observe the credibility Bruce carried. He could speak the same language as the claims adjusters and executives we worked with them. 

Bruce also taught me the value of showing up. I’m a fan of the gig economy, but there is a lot of value in physically showing up when working with stakeholders, preferably already with a plan in mind. We’ll get there eventually, but many business leaders still feel more comfortable with face-to-face conversations. Over the years I’ve observed Bruce constantly showing up, being in the same room as executives and helping them understand the importance of our work and helping them to feel confident in our abilities, the competency of our team, and the value of L&D in general.  

Leadership and Personal Responsibility

The last mentor I’m going to mention is someone who I didn’t directly report to, but with whom I worked a lot, off and on. I’ll call him “Lamont.” Lamont was over the leadership development at a medium-sized insurance company where we both worked. Lamont is the gold standard of a true leader and those things I’ve learned from him are still difficult to implement. Lamont exemplifies the servant leader concept. He listens intently and responds directly, without speaking around issues. He’s able to be honest and blunt, somehow without offending those with whom he disagrees. 

Lamont has the ability to help others feel safe, while at the same time cutting to the quick on important issues, creating a highly influential power of presence. He can walk into a room and without fanfare instantly leverage the respect of others in a way that creates win-win situations for all involved. 

Find, Recognize, and Learn from a Mentor

Some organizations formally try to create opportunities for people to find and become mentors. The company I currently work at does a great job giving people the space to find mentors. Even if you don’t have that, you can create a relationship with others as informal mentors. I’ve been in the L&D field for almost 20 years now and still find great value in learning from others. If you think you don’t need a mentor, you’re wrong. (A little humility goes a long way, Icarus.)

Perhaps you work where you’re the only L&D professional around. In that case – use social media like LinkedIn and Twitter. I’m open to talking with folks who are looking for a sounding board. There are folks like Jane Bozarth, Guy Wallace, Rachel Bourque, and Catherine Curtis on Twitter who, despite their success, still seem to have time to offer the occasional advice.

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