The Art of Mentoring
Midlifers can make great mentors. They have the long view but are active and involved in current developments at work, in the community and within a family. They have searched for meaning, found meaning, and find meaning. They introspect and spend plenty of time with themselves. They know their strengths and weaknesses and generally can spot them in others. They can be trusted advisors for people in their fields of work and those who run families and organizations.
Many of us are asked for direction and help by younger people. And we are happy to do it, time permitting. We understand that others can benefit. We ourselves have benefitted from mentors who took the time to share, guide and answer questions when we needed both general and specific answers to issues that have arisen. We want to pay it forward. We want to share with others who are starting out in their careers and adventures. We want them to benefit from what we have learned on our own journeys. While we can’t do it for them, we can talk about how we have acquired certain skills and the insights we have acquired along the way. We can encourage others as they move along chosen paths.
What’s interesting for me is the gap between what I remember, and what is recalled by the other person in the mentoring relationship. The value of personal investment is greater than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts can be funny. What comes up for the most often, are the simple things -how I was taught to address an email, how not to sit in my kitchen Thursday night while I am preparing for Shabbos (without taking up a peeler until the last fifteen minutes), discussions of what to wear to foundation awards events. But it’s the deeper stuff that sticks with the mentee years later. It is fun to see oneself through the memory of the beginning of our professional lives.
The importance of mentoring and being mentored is a popular topic in professional and education circles. It is valued not merely because learning is acquired but because mentoring also provides professional networking opportunities and personal support that facilitate chances for success. It creates an atmosphere of trust and teamsmanship in an organizational culture and it is good for the mentor, too.
When we mentor others, we create trust. Trust guarantees a safe space to fail, discuss challenges, and provide critical feedback. It’s up to us mentors to create that relationship, but we must also open ourselves up to be vulnerable. It’s not only about sharing success but also how failures have provided growth opportunities for us and taught us. Having the confidence to tell someone how I made a faux pas in conversation with the head of an important federation, tells the other person that I grew past that moment, as well as trusted her.
Explaining how we would do things differently challenges our thinking about the present, as well as mines our hindsight for important lessons. It helps us tackle current challenges as well as helps the mentee see things differently. Both partners in such a relationship are prompted to break out of patterns and recognize the barriers that may be holding us back. The pursuit of opportunities that are uncomfortable yet full of growth moments, can be recognized by the mentor who can find these unique experiences and help incorporate them into one’s life. Mentors are cheerleaders who can help others find their way.
And sometimes a blunt word is so valued. It’s time for you to run your own program. It’s hard to be the only female in the room-use your role wisely. Don’t just do the grunt work-lead! I reached out to people who validated me when I was the breaker of the glass ceiling and who could encourage me when I was told- you are frum, you are female, you are a rebbetzin. You cannot go farther here.
Mentors need to be much more than sage advice dispensers. As my colleague, who is a professional consultant for team building, says- mentoring is not a brain dump. Mentors need to listen and ask, more than speak. Opening up the other person with a “what’s on your mind” question allows you to guide the other, not dictate to them. It demonstrates respect for their thoughts and focuses them on what matters most. Just because we may be more experienced and more senior doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be respectful of their needs, fears, and questions. Let’s let the other person tell us about the project, the person, or the patterns that are on their minds or that they want to change. Coaching for development conversations will emerge.
There are other prompts that we can use, like “and what else”. Using this phrase a few times tames the advice monster so that the mentee comes to her own conclusions.
Being a mentor is an art. Let’s help ourselves and the others with honing skills crucial to this important role. It’s more than being unselfish. It’s about the sisterhood of growth and connection.
A veteran community activist, Faigie Horowitz, M.S., has spent twenty years in social services both as an executive and as a board member of non-profits. She is a founder of Rachel’s Place, a shelter for homeless girls in Brooklyn. She maintains a career counseling practice, is a freelance writer and columnist, and works in health care marketing. She serves as the rebbetzin of Congregation Agudas Achim of Lawrence, NY.