The importance of mentors for personal and business growth

Back in the day when we were wearing school uniforms, teachers were our saving grace. They taught us the basics. Showed us how to read and write and do simple arithmetic. They delivered hard lessons (why we shouldn’t eat worms, why we need to learn about modern history…) and gave us lessons in what we needed to be able to function in our everyday lives. For most, teachers are fundamental mentors  to the early stages of our journey through life.

Another example would be when you take on a sports challenge. Whether that be doing a 10k run, a triathlon or being part of a sports team, it’s not uncommon for an athlete to turn to a coach who has more experience to show them the ropes and direct them on where they need to go.

So this got me thinking. Why don’t they promote more coaches and mentors in the workplace?

There has been an influx of agile coaches and scrum masters over the past two to three years due to the rise in agile ways of working. However, a scrum master will only work with a team or teams to achieve a business goal. While agile coaches on the other hand, tend to work with an entire organisation, leaving individual career progression to, well, the individual.

Where does that leave the individual?

I, myself, have been searching for a coach or mentor to help me achieve my personal and professional goals for the past year.  I was lucky as the company I work for have professionals who have been working in the industry for decades and can share their experiences with me to help reach these career milestones and the pitfalls I may encounter. Having found a mentor and benefited from their influence, this blog is to show the importance mentors and coaches can have in the workplace.

The difference between a business coach and a business mentor

Small Business Trends describes a business coach as someone who focusses on assisting the organisation they are helping. These coaches define specific goals and then set out tasks to help them align to specific KPIs. They also constantly assess the business and use their experience to help lay out a path to achieve these agreed goals. This is done on more of a formal setting and is typically helping an organisation for a short period of time.

A mentor, on the other hand, looks at helping individuals achieve their personal goals – either personally or professionally. They leverage their own experience to guide and show a path for their mentee to walk along. Whilst not always the case, a mentor will have normally gone through the same challenges which their mentees are going through, so they know how to guide them on the right path to go.

So, where does this leave us. Do you need a coach, or do you need a mentor?

I believe that for a lot of people, the answer is both.

Here are my reasons why.

What is the mentor’s role?

Mentors are in a unique position of having a reservoir of wisdom and experience they can dip into. Whilst they can’t predict every foreseeable outcome, this magic little pot does enable them to sympathise with and impart wisdom on others walking a similar path. When it comes to the individual being mentored, this is greatly beneficial for these reasons:

  1. You can learn from mistakes without having to make them yourselves
  2. You can walk into situations with greater foresight and consideration of your actions than you gain on your own
  3. You can set out a path with the benefit of a companion who has been there before

When looking for a mentor, we would recommend looking for someone who can use their experience to advise you on the following:

  • How to handle a situation,
  • What you could expect from the situation or challenge,
  • What the possible outcomes you can expect, and
  • How to prepare to reduce the level of discomfort.

Most importantly, this advice should be tailored to you. It should also not be limited to helping you put out fires. Planning and discussing your passion and your path for the future is an important part of this process. Whilst its often easier to look for a solution when things aren’t plain sailing, mentors are also there to help you aspire, and where of benefit to you, tread the paths less trodden.

It is also important to note that not all mentors wear a badge. A lot of the time, we look for individuals to help us in a specific situation or guide us through a tough time and don’t necessarily think of them as anything more than a good listener. If you find yourself regularly turning to an individual or group of individuals for advice, you may very well have found yourself with a mentor. Sometimes, stumbling across a mentor by accident is a good way to find the right fit for you. Others have mentors assigned to them at work, and some choose to pay for the wisdom of an admired business-person. There really is no right answer. Just find somebody you trust and who’s advice you value.

There is also no such thing as being too senior or successful to have a mentor.

Steve Jobs mentored Mark Zuckerberg. Oprah Winfry was mentored by Barbara Walter, and Bill Gates went as far as to credit part of his success to his mentor Warren Buffet. In fact, mentors are not conditional on your status full stop; they are about finding someone you trust and has your best interests at heart. Without these two qualities, the relationship with your mentor will hold little value or benefit.

How mentors help during change

Change is a tricky thing. Often met with resistance and concern, it is one of the more common prompts for an individual to reach out for a mentor – not just for logical next-step planning, but in some cases, emotional support too.

The resistance can be attributed to a feeling of not knowing what comes next, and whilst some like to ride this wave out, others benefit from speaking to a third party. Somebody who is removed from your situation so can offer a different perspective without prejudice influenced by internal politics.  A fresh set of eyes.

This unbiased approach is essential. With your best interests at heart, mentors have the important role of delivering advice to you honestly – good or bad – and without the influence of personal or business gain. This doesn’t mean they have to sit outside your business, by having them one step removed (be that a different department or leadership team) can help create a safe space where you feel 100% comfortable sharing and talking through ideas that whilst could benefit you, might impact your current employer.

Trust not to be judged when asking for encouragement or support. Trust that you can air ideas without it leaving the safe space you created. Trust that you can ask questions with being made to feel stupid. Trust in the advice your mentor delivers in response to your conversations.

During change, having somebody you can turn to can be the difference between navigating your next steps with confidence and struggling to fully grasp what it is coming your way – which can lead to undue anxiety and stress. And sometimes it’s not about the advice. It’s just having a soundboard so you can lay out your options and weigh the pros and cons.

Mentors are also good at asking the questions you may not have thought to ask.

Adding a temporary pause to how you think about your career can help ensure you’re still happy with the path you first set for yourself. One prime example is a societal pressure for individuals to progress to a manager / c-level. But for some, they can think of nothing worse. Rather than blindly following the paths traditionally set by businesses, a mentor can prompt you to be honest with yourself and help you set the right goalposts for your aspirations. Because at the end of the day, when you spend 40 hours + at work, it helps to enjoy what you do.

Another sign of a good mentor is one that has links to people and resources beyond your own collection. Introductions to new contacts and insights can open doors, welcome you to relevant communities and help you understand a situation better which can in turn give you confidence to back yourself in an important meeting. All of which can be useful tools in your career toolbox and help you grow as a person.

The business case for mentors:

Whilst mentors are primarily focused on the individual, they can drive great benefits for business. Collaboration, innovation and happier employees are just a few notable gains, but there’s plenty more where that came from.

Let’s take a look behind the scenes at what we’re doing at ECS Digital to see how you too can benefit from mentors in the workplace.

Behind the scenes at ECS Digital

ECS Digital is growing, and with this growth came a need to create a more sophisticated mentorship program. Not only so each team member is given adequate face time, but also so we could live up to our promise of enabling our engineers to shape the careers best suited to their interests and skillset.

We did this by creating the one engineering team (1ET). Through the one 1ET, willing team members were given the responsibility of management, coaching and mentorship to their direct reports. This introduced a new layer of mentors within the business, but it also came with its challenges.

The challenges we faced were mostly around ensuring those going forward for the role had the right experience and support to effectively manage, mentor and coach direct reports. We solved this challenge by adopting the following solutions:

Training

Just like mentoring and coaching, you need to train in order to get accustom with new responsibility. We scheduled in a number of training sessions which helped develop the skills needed to succeed in the role. This included:

  • Stepping up to management course — this dedicated course gave our new mentors insights into the types of topics and scenarios they were likely to face. We also looked at the types of people, giving our team the chance to best understand how to approach different personality types.
  • Conflict Management training — each mentor was given training about how to deal with conflict when it arises, where to escalate problematic situations and limiting the negative aspects of conflictwhile increasing the positive

Support

With anything you do, it’s important to have a community of people around you. Not only can they offer support, they become an ecosystem of people you can bounce ideas off and share experiences with. At ECS Digital, we have a Community of Practice (COP) which is just that.

We discuss ideas and challenges within the company, get support from one another on projects and talk about initiatives that could benefit the wider company. It is also a forum where scenarios can be brought forward and people can give advice on how they would deal with the situation.

How Has Mentoring Helped The Team?

Whilst I can’t speak for everyone, the initial response has been both positive and encouraging. For me personally, I am the type of person who thrives off working with people. I love to work in groups and enjoy working with others – which I’m sure stems from the fact I take inspiration from others. Where I struggle sometimes, is working on my own, focusing on my goals and setting out a pathway in which to achieve them to get me to the next level in my career.

At ECS Digital, we’re privileged to have an abundance of talented people who have not only seen a lot in their careers but are more than willing to help their fellow colleagues in their path to success. Through the mentorship program, I have benefited greatly from having a person I can turn to, but also love the fact I too am part of a community so willing to give back. Here’s how it’s helped me the most:

Talking

Being able to speak to someone about what you’re going through, what you aspire to do and your goals really puts things into perspective. There are two very important stages in a person’s life (at 21 and 35) – and it is at these stages we highly recommend a mentor or mentee. Being able to really hone down on your aspirations and where you’d like to be in the next 5, 10 or 15 years can keep you focused on specific goals. I myself have found that I’ve been able to speak to my mentors around goals and career pathways and see what I need to do to get prepared for the steps I take today, and the steps I need to take in the future.

Setting Out Goals

In order to reach your next step, it’s always helpful to set out how you’re going to get there. A mentor should be able to help you do that. I found myself having long sessions with my mentors to figure out where best to focus my energy and clearly define where my next step would lie. This exercise has been hugely beneficial. In this case, my mentor is internal so for ECS Digital, they have gained a better understanding of where I’d like my career to go and can look out for opportunities that can help me on this journey. It has also created an honest dialogue, so expectations are set on both sides – no nasty surprises and a reduced resistance to change which can come about when people feel they’ve been left out the loop. It has also given me the guidance I need to settle on a particular path, making it easier for me prioritize and attend suitable training.

Giving Advice

Giving advice and sharing knowledge is one the most special things you can do for someone, and I’m fortunate that somebody choose to do it for me! Being able to speak to an individual who has been through the things you’ve not experienced is like getting hindsight handed to you in a bottle. You can ask for feedback, seek advice on how to handle situations and ask for strategic moves that can save you a lot of unnecessary discomfort.

Concluding thoughts:

Wherever you are in life, I truly believe in the importance of having someone (you may not have specifically called them a mentor) you can go to for advice and help you grow. Mentors are people who are there to get you to the next level – whether this be in your personal life or professional career – so do yourself a favour. Bag an early Christmas present and invest in yourself by reaching out to a mentor.

If you’re able to mentor, I’d highly recommend that too. Being able to mentor is an amazing thing to do as you’re able to share your knowledge and help someone else flourish. For mentees who are looking for guidance, you don’t have to specifically have to name the relationship you have with the person giving you guidance. Be open minded and try and take advice and guidance from multiple sources allowing you to get the most.

Last and certainly not least, if you do find a mentor, make the most of the time you have with that person. You can’t buy experience so your time with your mentor is incredibly valuable!

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You can find other insights by following the author – Ben Shonubi –  on twitter!

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