The Shifting Lens of Mentoring

The other day I realized that I had become the “old man” at Tech Field Day. Not so much that I’m ready for AARP but more that I’ve been there longer than anyone else but Stephen. The realization was a long time coming but the thing that pushed me to understand it was when someone asked a question about a policy we had and I not only knew the reason why we did it but also a time before we had it.

As I spent time thinking about the way that I’ve graduated from being the new guy to the old mentor I thought about the inflection point when the changeover happened.

Green and Growing

The first part of the demarcation between mentor and mentee in my eyes is where the knowledge lies. When you’re first starting out you’re the one that needs to understand things. You ask lots and lots of questions and try to understand how things are done and why you do them that way. Focusing on that knowledge acquisition is part of the marker of someone in need of mentorship.

For those trying to mentor these eager employees don’t make the mistake of getting frustrated at the constant questioning. As someone that constantly has to understand the what and the why behind things I have been known to overwhelm those that would prefer to just tell me how things are done and move on with it.

When I see that level of curiosity in others I realize that they’re not trying to change things for the sake of change. Unlike others who might just want to make changes as a method of controlling the processes, eager learners are usually asking questions about the process because they need to understand the reasoning behind it. Often they have a unique perspective they can impart to the problem or some other knowledge they can use to streamline things. Even if they don’t you can help them understand why the process or policy is done in a specific way.

Guidance for the Eager

Coming back to that moment of realization from earlier means knowing the answers to the questions being asked are ones you have. Some people are designated as mentors based on their desire to share knowledge with others. In smaller organizations that may not be possible. You may find yourself mentoring others simply because you know what they need to learn and there’s no one else to teach them.

When you realize that you’re the one that knows the answer to the question you should step forward into a mentoring role. That’s what it feels like to be the “old timer” at the office. You’ve been around when the policies were made or perhaps you were the mentee asking all the questions right after that. Either way you have knowledge that needs to be shared with others.

That is the real inflection point. The knowledge transfer. Note that this has nothing to do with seniority or age or even organizational structure. This has everything to do with skills and information. You could be mentoring a younger new employee in the process for contracts today. And that same employee could be offering you guidance and help in a new email program or social media platform tomorrow. The mentoring relationship doesn’t always have to be one-way.

The dynamic nature of the mentoring relationship is one area I feel like we could always strive to do better at. We often see the older, more tenured employees as the default mentors. While that is true it undervalues the knowledge that new employees can have. Maybe this person is just starting out in the accounting department. However, if they were an accountant for the last three years do you think that means they don’t have the skills? Or perhaps it’s just that they need to understand the specifics of their role here. I’d wager that if you asked them for ways you could improve the accounting process they’d have some suggestions for you.

Tom’s Take

I didn’t necessarily see myself as a mentor until it was staring me right in the face. Yes, I had agreed to train people in certain aspects of their roles but the idea that I was doing it more as a form of knowledge transfer hadn’t really occurred to me until I found myself answering questions because I was the only one that had those answers. As you look for ways to cultivate and grow mentoring relationships don’t forget to share what you’ve learned but also seek out things that you want to understand. That knowledge will serve you well and also give you an opportunity to give it back down the road to a new group of people in need of mentorship.

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