Last week I wrote about the power of networking, so it only seems fitting that this week I should reconnect my readership with a thought leadership guru in my network, Steve Vinter. He works at the Broad Institute driving technical leadership development and also with startups coaching and advising leaders. After a career as an engineering director, he spent a decade building Google’s Cambridge office from a handful of people to more than a thousand engineers. He’s passionate about education, leadership development, coaching, and helping people in underrepresented communities increase their opportunities and impact. And today he’s sharing some of that experience with us as he breaks down what we need to know about mentoring and thought leadership.
Many of us naturally gravitate toward mentoring others as we gain more experience in our professional lives. We’ve received mentoring at some point in our careers, and we know firsthand how helpful it can be. Additionally it is gratifying to see the impact made when a young leader gains a new perspective, realizes how normal their situation is, or obtains access to some resource that resolves a major problem.
However, Jacquelyn caught me off guard the other day when she said: “you’re one of my mentors.” That statement confused me. We had only recently met, and my perception of our relationship was one of collaboration, not mentorship. She was helping me learn about the business of blogging, and I was being interviewed by her for an upcoming article on connecting with a coach. Even with the balance of exchange in our relationship and the absence of a “I’m coming to you for guidance” nature, she still chose the word “mentor.” Of course, I wanted to know why.
Redefining the Term
I immediately said, “I think you’re using the word “mentoring” differently than I do,” and explained how our relationship didn’t seem to match my use of the term. She responded that she has about fifty mentors, and that she looks at mentoring as having access to people who cause her to think deeply and explore subjects to help her gain insights and new understandings. While that is a prominent element of mentoring, it didn’t capture what I think of as the asymmetric relationship that most people associate with the term.
Reconsidering the Relationship
That exchange brought to mind various professional relationships I’ve had over the years, and specifically one mentoring relationship that has lasted over a decade. During that time, this mentee has gone from a junior engineer to a senior director, and he recently mentioned how rewarding our relationship has been throughout that journey. That may be what the mentee experiences, but it doesn’t capture the richness of the mentoring experience. I was able to observe him as he took on challenges that I have never encountered. I learned a great deal by seeing how he responded to situations, comparing them with my reactions, and understanding the differences. Many times he commented that the questions I asked were more helpful than the advice I offered, and we went on to explore which questions were key in different situations. I truly learned a great deal from these exchanges.
Reconsidering the Relationship Transition
As I reflect on the “mentoring” experiences I’ve had with leaders over longer periods of time, many of those relationships slowly transitioned from mentoring into something new. While they received an enormous amount of gratification and learning from the initial relationship, this partnership held new value. It is characterized by shared exploration of challenging, complex topics where the solutions aren’t obvious (if solutions are possible at all) and decision-making is much more rooted in our values and emotions than in optimizing for a particular outcome. It is the evolution from one person giving their time, experience, and insights for another person to a thought partnership for mutual growth.
So, whether they are mentors or thought partners, I hope you have them. Since many of our professional relationships are derived from day-to-day interactions with colleagues at the workplace that are needed to “get stuff done,” we need these relationships to breathe life and foster growth. In some ways the richest set of interactions we have are the meaningful, long-term relationships that aren’t task driven or accomplishment oriented. Some may defy simple terms like “mentoring” or “advising,” and instead involve learning, growing, exploring, reflection, and partnership on both sides of the relationship. The more we foster and invest in these connections, the richer the harvest we all experience.
Jacquelyn Adams is a career development enthusiast and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, delving into more effective employee training strategies… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.