Your Best Mentors Are Those Who Don’t Even Know It

Tammy Heermann Article

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Art of Leadership for Women this week in Calgary. During the Q&A session following my presentation I was asked what mentors played a key role in getting to more senior levels, and what advice I had for those seeking mentors.

The first time I was asked this question my initial reaction was, maybe I didn’t have any. I was never provided a mentor nor called anyone by that name. And then I remembered David who taught me about the importance of stakeholder management; Susan who instilled in me the power of building a strong network; Liane who emboldened my courage by pushing me beyond my brink of comfort; and Vince who showed me how to think strategically and always two steps ahead. I’m not sure any of them even know that. They may now. Thank you mentors. 

You see in this day and age we’ve been brainwashed to think that mentors are those people we’ve been carefully matched with, sipping coffee together as they impart their wisdom on us. Wouldn’t that be nice? And sometimes it does happen that way. Formal mentorship programs are important initiatives to create a culture of talent development and match high potentials with more senior level sponsors. 

But if you’re waiting for your organization to pair you with a mentor you are missing the point.

Last week I worked with high potential leaders from a company who started with humble immigrant roots and has grown into a multi-billion dollar global success story. During the course of the program five members of the senior leadership team came and spent time with the high potentials. The executives shared their leadership stories, their career paths, and how they got to the place they are today. Every single one of them shared stories of their mentors and every single one of them said this relationship was never named. It was never made formal. No one went to a leader and said, “Will you be my mentor?”

These individuals became students of observation. They watched and they listened intently. They took the good behaviors they admired and added them to their repertoire in a way that felt authentic to them. They also took note of the undesirable behaviors that they didn’t want to emulate. And when they got the chance, they asked questions of those people to show they were willing to learn more.  They asked how they could help and they put their hands up to work more closely with those mentors.

So what advice do I have for those seeking mentors?

Embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Don’t wait to be matched; just start observing. Find opportunities to ask questions of those you admire. Ask for 15 minutes to get their insights, their thought process or the judgement they exercised to handle that tough question, make the decision or shift the tone in the room. Be curious and learn. Finally, find out what’s important to that mentor and find ways to add value. When you do this well it won’t feel like extra work for you - it will feel like a privilege and time well spent.

So put down that darn device you grip like a loved one who’s about to fall off the cliff. Instead, observe people like a hawk in every presentation, dialogue and meeting you can. That’s how you’ll find your next mentor guaranteed.

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