Mentorship…The Glorious Game of Paying it Forward

Recently, I had the experience of attending an event that provided an unusual opportunity to network, collaborate and share with a group of peers to discuss topics such as career advancement, leadership and professional development. It was a tremendous opportunity to disconnect from the standard noise of day to day life while listening to others and reflecting on some of my own experiences and challenges associated with managing a career amongst the many other wonderful yet demanding aspects of life.

Throughout the days of the event, a topic that was raised over and over again was mentorship. Who had a mentor? Who didn’t? What makes a great mentor and how does one find a mentor?

For some, a mentor was someone with whom they had built a special relationship at a key stage of their career and they maintained that relationship for decades to come. For others, like myself, their career had been peppered with numerous special relationships that provided unique but valuable opportunities for growth, learning and development. And for some, unfortunately, there was a sense that they had missed out on any opportunities to have a mentor, despite the success that they had achieved throughout their careers. This saddened me a bit and caused me to think about how this could be the case. In each of these scenarios, the individuals were bright, driven and high performing individuals.

I started my first job at the age of 18 at a small but very popular local coffee shop. Perhaps a bit later to enter the world of employment than most kids as I was primarily focused on academics and athletics when I was in high school. Of course these days, the athletics part seems like a lifetime ago, but at least I still have a decent head for numbers. It wasn’t a glamourous gig but I loved it. In fact, I devoured everything about the experience. I worked as many hours as I could and I couldn’t learn enough about all the different aspects of the job. To this day, I have an unhealthy obsession with coffee and could make a flat white that would make most hipsters trade the plaid shirt off their backs for just one more cup. A key part of my love of the job came down to who I was working for. The owner of the coffee shop had spent years prior to opening it, learning everything there was to know about coffee. He researched techniques for roasting, blending, preparing and serving coffee. He never stopped learning and he encouraged his staff to share the same passion for the product and service we were providing. He was a coffee god and had earned a tremendous respect within the community for his depth of knowledge and commitment to his trade. I wanted to be just like him. And over the next 5 years while I finished my degree, he taught me more about running a business, motivating a team, selling product and creating a following than any of my undergraduate business courses ever could. At no point, did I ask him to be my mentor nor did he offer. But I would demonstrate interest, and he would provide me with an opportunity to learn. And while these days our paths have literally taken us to opposite ends of the world, I fondly remember those days and consider them to have provided a significant positive foundation of growth for the next 20 years of my life both personally and professionally.

Since that job, I have had multiple other individuals that have taken the time to coach me and provide opportunities that have challenged me in a manner that has resulted in great personal growth and achievement. While not every “boss” I have had has been a formidable role model (trust me, it hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows), I have been blessed with the opportunity and ability to build relationships with some very intelligent individuals that were willing to invest their time and energy into my development. For each of these opportunities, I am extremely grateful and have done my best to step up to the challenge.

Two years ago, my husband and I joined KPMG as part of an acquisition of a smaller company we were working for. At the time, I wasn’t 100% sure how I would like this new world we were entering into. Up until that point, I had always worked for smaller organizations and appreciated the comradery and close relationships that I was able to build with the people I worked for and with. What I didn’t realize is that even within a “Big 4″ firm, the opportunities for relationship building would be incredibly strong. In fact, success is very much dependent on it. All of a sudden, there was an expert for everything. I remember coming to work one day and learning that there was a “snow clearing expert” in town visiting us. “Really?” I thought, “There is such thing as a Snow clearing expert? And he works with us?” Turns out there was and he was actually quite good. In fact, the firm is full of smart people like that. Even more so, the firm is full of folks that are willing to share what they know and provide opportunities for someone to step up and demonstrate their abilities. And it was in this environment that I felt more empowered and positioned for growth than I had ever been previously. No longer was it about one single person being my mentor. But the opportunity to benefit from the collective experiences of many and step up to multiple interesting challenges presented to me by true leaders in the area of business, management, technology and yes even municipal services.

And that to me at the core is what mentorship is all about. Seeing potential in someone, providing them with an opportunity and encouraging their growth. But it’s a two way street and for every eager person looking to grow and develop, there needs to be others willing to invest in their growth and provide the venue to succeed. It isn’t always a formal relationship. There isn’t always a life changing moment or formal offer or contract of mentorship. Sometimes it’s a bit of insight and recognition on both the mentor and mentee’s part of the positive potential of a relationship and an informal commitment to trying something out.

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” she has a great chapter on mentoring called “Are you My Mentor?” After reading that chapter, it finally hit home to me how lucky I had been in my career so far. I am regularly paired with opportunities to work with leaders that challenge me and allow me to showcase what I am capable of while still coaching me through the areas that I need to grow in. I am also lucky enough to recognize those opportunities and appreciate them for what they are. However I have come to appreciate that not everybody has been that lucky or potentially not everybody is comfortable stepping forward to seize an opportunity for mentorship when they are given one.

Which is why I think that for any aspiring mentor or great leader, it is important to appreciate those that don’t lean in or stand up. For those folks, we need to make that extra effort to help them see their potential and understand the opportunities for growth that exist just past their scope of vision. We need to match them with coaches and sponsors that help them recognize their true potential and encourage them to maximize their opportunities for growth in the way they are most comfortable.

So in summary, upon reflection of my own career to date, I have two main points that I challenge you to consider if you have made it this far:

  1. If you are in the building stage of your career (which arguably we all are, aren’t we?), are you recognizing and seizing the opportunities that exist for you to learn from others and step up to the plate? Are you maximizing the outcomes of opportunities that leaders are giving you to differentiate yourself and prove your potential? And most importantly, are you appreciating and showing gratitude for the opportunities you have been given? Don’t let them pass by unnoticed.
  2. If you are in a position of leadership, what are you doing to invest in those around you? Do you only provide opportunities to those that chase them or are you seeking potential in those that might not yet have the courage or awareness to step forward? Remember that some of the greatest blossoms might start from a little deeper in the soil. I don’t know if that’s actually true since gardening isn’t my specialty but you get the idea right?

I think that within a career, you can never stop growing. But as you progress through your career, there is a responsibility to give back. Not too long ago, I was lucky enough to sit with someone that I consider to be a wonderful mentor and a great leader. After the discussion I thanked him for his insights and for taking the time to coach me the way that he has. His only response…”Just remember to pay it forward”. A simple reply but with significant impact on me. And it is something that I plan to dedicate a significant focus towards for at least the next 20 years of my career.