“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.”— Denzel Washington
The word mentor is defined as a wise and trusted counselor or teacher and has its origin in Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey, where a loyal adviser of Odysseus named Mentor is entrusted with the care and education of his son Telemachus. I have long been drawn to the idea of mentorship and have had the privilege of being mentored by several wonderful and caring leaders over the course of my life. I have also been fortunate to mentor a number of young leaders and am grateful for each opportunity.
I recently discussed the topic of mentorship with Karen Bennett, the well-respected EVP and Chief People Officer for Cox Communications. I have known Karen for over 15 years and her passion for mentoring is obvious to anyone who has worked with her or served with her in the community. Here is our interview and the candid insights Karen shared with me. Enjoy!
Karen-I have known you for many years and have long admired your passion for mentoring others. Where does that passion come from?
I started in the workplace at a time where there weren’t many female executives to emulate. Of the few that were present, only a handful would take the time to bring others along, and “show them the ropes.” I had the good fortune of working for two individuals like that, who wanted to create more advocacy and exposure for me to be successful, including learning from my mistakes and stretching me outside of my comfort zone.
So, I realized early in my career what a unique experience these two leaders gave me, and to not take it for granted, but to pay it forward as I progressed in roles of increasing responsibility.
How do you personally define “mentoring”? Who are the players in a mentoring relationship? Who needs it most?
To me, mentoring is a relationship with a trusted advisor. One who will listen, keep confidences, challenge, offer advice based on their own experiences and observations. A mentor is typically out of your daily work circle and brings objectivity to the issues on which you want to gain insights.
The person being mentored (the mentee), however, is the one who owns and drives the relationship. What a mentee puts into it determines what he or she will get out of it. A mentee needs to plan for the conversations, set a schedule (if preferred), make an agenda, etc. In short, they need to make the time worthwhile for both themselves and the mentor. Both are looking for growth through the relationship, be it exposures to different ways of thinking, brainstorming to solve work challenges, or even broadening their network of other professionals.
Can anyone become a mentor?
A person needs to want to be a mentor first and foremost. Having advice to offer, keeping confidences, being committed to the relationship, and being a willing sounding board and accountability coach are the truest representations of what it means to be a mentor. And, it takes time to foster such a relationship. All that said, a person must decide if they can and want to devote the time to this sort of relationship with the person asking them to mentor.
In your role as a senior HR executive with a multibillion-dollar company, what is your take on how mentoring works inside companies today? Is anything missing?
Formal mentoring programs are becoming more and more prevalent in companies. Generally, high performing employees are offered an opportunity to have a senior leader mentor them for a specific period of time. Some match-making and basic training is done, but after that, how the mentoring is done is up to the mentor and mentee.
Programs like this are well received, and rated highly by their participants, which is an indication these are working. Ironically, these relationships often extend well beyond the formal program time frame, however. They become long-lasting workplace relationships, some which may even transcend time working at the same company!
To expound on that last question, does mentoring always need to be a formal company program? If so, who should drive it? If not, how does it take root and grow?
A new advent which is proving successful is Peer Mentoring. This is less structured as a program, and may have mentoring pairs select each other on the basis of familiarity with the type of professional line of work each person does; family life and work like similarities (e.g., young parents wanting to learn from other young parents on how they’re balancing work and parenthood). I am a fan of this approach as well. The same accountabilities apply to both mentor and mentee as in formalized mentoring programs, but is a more relaxed approach.
I have long held the view that mentoring others is a clear demonstration of servant leadership. Do you agree?
I couldn’t agree more! A servant leader is one who chooses to serve others for the purpose of helping them reach their full potential and performance. One demonstration of that is certainly mentoring. A mentor listens empathetically and advises without judgement. As I shared, I think mentors benefit greatly from mentoring relationships too, but the focus is one of service to the mentee – putting the mentee first. Whether one directly leads people in their career or not, he/she can definitely practice servant leadership through mentoring!
For the leaders and future leaders reading this interview, what is your advice to them on how to become mentors or select mentors for themselves?
If you are interested in mentoring, or paying it forward, ask yourself “how would someone know this about me?” Consider this as you engage in workplace conversations or professional organization meetings in which you encounter a colleague who you see potential in, and where you feel they would be receptive to mentoring, be it from you or from someone else, and suggest it to them!
If you are interested in being mentored, consider for what needs, purpose, advice, and make yourself a “short list” of people you think would be particularly compatible with you for this need, and muster the courage to ask them! While they may be unable to commit the time ongoing, it will still make for a great connection and an additional person in your network.
Thank you Karen! I greatly appreciate your time and valuable insights on mentoring.
Randy Hain is an award winning author, executive coach, leadership consultant, speaker and the president of Serviam Partners (www.ServiamPartners.com). He is also the co-founder of The Leadership Foundry (www.MyLeadershipFoundry.com).