Mentors

One of the best parts of my job as a university professor is meeting and mentoring students of all ages, whether they are traditional-aged college students or business professionals in our MBA programs. For me, mentoring is a way to practice leadership and to give back to those who will be our future. 

I know the importance of finding someone to help you fill in the gaps, make you stronger and give you encouragement throughout your career.

At each juncture of my career — in the corporate world, startup community or academia, I’ve received powerful words of wisdom from multiple mentors. They answered my questions, helped me look at my options and taught me important issues I did not fully understand. 

Today, my mentors are often from generations younger than my own. They grew up looking at the world differently than me. Their insights show me how I can be more impactful. I credit these insights for making me a better teacher.

I recently had the privilege to produce a panel discussion on mentoring for Kelley School of Business Evening MBA students and alumni. The panel included local business leaders (several of whom are Kelley School alumni), including Gary Brackett, former linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts and CEO of Stacked Pickle; Ragan Brackett, a family medicine physician; Melissa Greenwell, executive vice president and COO at Finish Line; Sunny Lu Williams, president of Techserv Corp.; Rob Williams, consultant for Emerging Technology and Healthcare Innovation, and Dave Wortman, chairman and CEO at Diagnotes, Inc.

Here are nine takeaways from that discussion on mentoring do’s and don’ts:

1. Build a trusting relationship. A mentor is someone who lets you ask dumb questions, who is your sounding board, and who lets you explore your true self. You have to trust it’s a safe zone. Additionally, you can’t really trust someone in the first meeting. You have to let the relationship mature. Look for someone who shares your values and set expectations for transparency and honesty.

2. Find a mirror. Mentors should help you reflect on what you want to see. When you are a mentor, be the mirror for someone else.

3. Identify a “master” you can be an “apprentice” to. Mentors can share wisdom and knowledge they’ve learned through experience. As such, look for someone who has the knowledge you need.

4. Say yes. Occasionally, mentors reach out to someone they think they can help. If you get that kind of attention, don’t resist it. Figure out what they see in you.

5. Make it easy for the mentor to spend time with you. Two people driving to a meeting wastes time. Go to your mentor when it’s convenient to them. Not only are you saving time by going to their office, but you may also get more insight into them as a person. People often let their guard down in familiar places, and they might even be more open.

6. Look for mentors to fill your gaps. It’s easier to talk to people just like you. But finding the perspective of someone who is different from you can be more beneficial.

7. Be humble. Mentors want to help people who need help. Never present yourself as perfect. Otherwise, why would they help you?

8. Roles change over time. Mentors can become bosses. Bosses can become mentors. Mentors can become sponsors. The best practice is to build a relationship where the mentor knows who you are and what you are capable of. Then, let the next steps emerge as they will. Don’t rush it and don’t pick a mentor because you think they will help you. You can’t go into a mentor relationship expecting to get more help than the time spent exchanging ideas.

9. Mentors get something out of it too. They see the world from a different lens because of this mentoring relationship. It re-energizes them and reminds them what excited them to begin with about their career or career path. They get to think about what they’ve learned over time. Mentors learn about themselves through mentoring. More importantly, they find a sense of confidence in the future. The people they are mentoring have a lot to offer too.

No matter where you are in your career – or in life – I encourage you to seek out mentors. Maybe that’s just one person to begin with: A person who is independent and can be your sounding board. Or maybe that’s multiple people in different facets of your life or career. I can’t stress enough – if someone comes to you, asking for your time or aid with a problem – help them. You never know what you’ll gain from those relationships along the way.

And if you aren’t mentoring anyone yet, look around and think about who could use your help. You’ve learned so much. Don’t hold tight to that knowledge. Share it with others. Who knows? It might remind you how to better handle a situation you are dealing with right now.

Kim Saxton is clinical professor of marketing, Indiana University Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.

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