My high school basketball coach called me “uncoachable.” In parent-teacher conferences, my teachers told my parents that I was “unwilling to learn.”
My parents wondered why I didn’t listen. They had low expectations for me in college. While I did struggle in college, I made it through.
Then something happened that changed my approach to learning.
I got into the corporate world. And although I still had a boss who told me what to do, he wasn’t trying to cram information down my throat.
I also developed a professional relationship with a coworker who had a few years of experience on me. We started out working together on a few projects. I would ask him questions. He would answer them as well as he could. We would stop for a beer after work every once in a while and talk about work.
I don’t ever think we used the M-word. He just simply evolved into being a mentor for me. For a while, I thought I had just matured from my high school and college years. That was true to some degree. But a bigger part of it was that I selected my mentor. I chose someone that had knowledge that I wanted to learn. Someone I respected.
That made a big difference for my desire and willingness to learn.
Selecting a mentor
Some organizations have formal mentoring programs in which they assign mentors and mentees. This can be helpful because they presumably match people based on the skill set of the mentor and the skill needs of the mentee.
Matching by the organization however, cannot take into account the chemistry between the two participants. Ideally, the protégé selects the mentor based on both knowledge and their ability to work together.
Preselected mentoring participants can mesh into productive professional relationships. They can also be particularly helpful for the young worker who is shy and too reluctant to seek out their own mentor.
If a mentoring relationship is assigned and is not working out or is unproductive, there are no rules that stipulate that it must be a monogamous relationship. The mentee can seek out another person, or multiple people to turn to for advice. The key is to find someone whose advice you respect that will give you honest advice and feedback.
Being a good learner
Regardless of who you choose to be your mentor, or who is chosen for you, it is important to be a good learner. The most important aspect of being a good learner is being a good listener.
You may not agree with every bit of advice that every mentor provides. You also aren’t obligated to follow all advice. But a mentor has gone out of his way to share information with you. The most polite and professional way to deal with it is to listen.
You may find that if you hear the mentor out, you may agree with some of the advice. Some of it may not make sense. Some of it may not apply to you. But by listening to all of the advice, there may be a snippet that will be helpful to you.
Another aspect of being a good learner is asking good questions. The great thing about a good mentoring relationship is the safety of asking anything. If you observe someone who does something or makes a decision that you don’t understand, you can ask a mentor about it privately.
A good mentor should be open to any questions. The only dumb question is the one that isn’t asked. Engage with the mentor and ask about things that you don’t understand.
Being a good listener and respectful does not mean that you have to be subservient. Mentoring should be a relationship of mutual respect. Every once in a while, a mentor comes along that gets a power trip out of mentoring. Most people who give of their time to mentor are interested in helping people and usually provide good advice. But the mentee should always be aware of the types of…
The jerk. Some mentors are more interested in ordering people around than in giving good advice. They may be condescending or they don’t make themselves available. Some go out of their way to make you feel stupid by criticizing your questions. If you find yourself with a mentor like this, it’s best to stop meeting with them. They probably aren’t doing much mentoring anyway. And the pain may not be worth whatever benefit there is. If your organization mandates mentoring sessions, you may want to consider reporting the mentor’s behavior. If possible, request a new mentor.
An aversion to technology. Members of the millennial generation who are now entering the workforce, have grown up with technology. Most don’t remember a world without the internet or mobile phones.
As a result, they have been brought up with a comfort level with technology that no other generation has experienced. When they enter the workforce and work with older coworkers, they are sometimes confused by their discomfort with technology. This can affect the mentoring relationship negatively.
If a baby boomer mentor suggests an approach, the millennial may automatically try to apply technology. When the baby boomer pushes back, friction can ensue. The baby boomer argues that the younger generation can’t do math in their head, they always need a spreadsheet or an app. The millennial argues that baby boomers always want to do things the hard way with antiquated means.
Millennials should work cooperatively with older workers. Try it their way. Then perhaps show them an easier way. An open mind on one side may result in an open mind on the other.
Old school. Similar to the aversion to technology, some older mentors share their experiences and advise their mentee based on the narrow focus of those experiences. They sometimes don’t realize that times change as do the business scenarios around them.
A mentor may give advice that is out of date and inappropriate for the times. As with any other advice a mentee gets that he disagrees with, it will behoove him to listen politely. If the advice can be modified and modernized to fit how things are done in the current world, the advice can still be useful.
The mentee should also take into account that times may not have changed as much as he thinks. Although the advice seems old school, the rest of the world may still be a bit old school themselves.
Over-aggressive. While some mentors like the power of giving someone else advice, others simply feel so strongly about their advice that they are inflexible about it. They provide advice. They assume their follower will heed the advice. They react negatively when the advice is not followed.
This can put the mentee in a difficult situation. The mentor isn’t necessarily condescending or verbally abusive, but expects the mentee to “do what he is told.” It can be even more difficult if the mentor is the mentee’s manager.
Depending on the situation, it may be best to try things the mentor’s way. If they are adamant, give the advice a try to prove whether it will work or not. If the mentor persists over your desire not to “do it their way,” it may indicate a lack of flexibility or compatibility. It may be time to seek a different mentor.
Traditionally, mentoring is performed by the older, wiser person who has had at least a few more years of experience. That person shares her knowledge with the younger, greener worker. The assumption is that each generation teaches the subsequent one.
As discussed earlier, the millennial generation is much different from most of their preceding generations. Millennials enter the workforce with experience in technology that exceeds that of their older counterparts.
As millennials enter the workforce, they may see older coworkers using bits and pieces of newer technology, but only scratching the surface. They may use tools such as social media, but only for entertainment purposes. Many do not understand the business potential of such technologies.
Millennials have an excellent opportunity to “mentor back” to their older counterparts. However, it needs to be done in a diplomatic and gentle enough way to which the older recipient will be receptive.
Consider the baby boomer’s perspective. Their initial approach is that the millennial is inexperienced and needs their help. Pointing out their lack of knowledge of technology will likely make them defensive. They may even counter that millennials employ technology whether it is necessary or not.
Taking a mentor under your wing may also make them wary. Rather than approaching a more experienced worker as a teacher, it is more effective to approach is in a collaborative manner. The mentor shares knowledge from experience. The mentee does the same. It is more of an exchange of knowledge where each participant shares with the other.
Commencement speeches around the world preach the fact that learning does not end at graduation, but is in fact a lifetime endeavor. Some graduates discount this advice thinking that learning is about textbooks and lectures. They are ready to put that learning behind them.
Mentoring and coaching in the business world is a much different form of learning from formal education. Learning how to be mentored can enhance one’s career and make learning interesting and productive throughout one’s career.
What have you done to enhance your ability to be mentored?
I welcome your questions and comments.
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