Now Brewing: Starbucks’ VIA Instant. Don’t knock it until you try it. Instant coffee never tasted so good. I’m a big fan of the Italian Roast.
Getting stuck in traffic? Not fun. Getting stuck in traffic on the morning of your first day of work? Not the strongest start—but that’s what happened to me just over a year ago. I managed to leave my house at just the right moment so that I hit every red light, watched a train pass, and sat at a complete standstill on the freeway. I was certain, when I finally walked into the office, that my morning commute was a sign from above that I was totally going to suck at this job.
Luckily, my boss at the time laughed it off and the rest of my week continued on much like the first week at a new job does—meetings with HR reps, paperwork, training—the usual. Because I interned with the company the summer before, I did modified training and before I knew it, I accepted my first assignment with a coworker outside of my home office.
Phone calls used to really freak out the introvert in me—so much so that my childhood friends still can’t believe that I spend a good chunk of my work week on conference calls. As I waited to connect with the manager of that first project, I remember actually shaking with anxiety.
I hate to be cliché and say that when I got on the phone with this coworker I forgot all about my worries and my career went happily ever after…but I did and for the most part, it has.
I’m grateful for that first phone call, because even though I was incredibly nervous, it introduced me to someone that not only became one of my favorite work friends, but also my most valued mentor.
In her novel, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, states: “When someone finds the right mentor it is obvious.” According to Sandberg’s standards, I think I’m pretty lucky because I learned a heck of a lot from my mentor before it occurred me that hey! I think she’s actually teaching me things. The beauty of this organic mentorship is that I’ve always felt like I was talking to a friend, even on that first call, which is why I was able to feel comfortable then and have the confidence now to pick up the phone and call just about anyone.
Sandberg also wrote:
“Mentorship is crucial for career progression. Both men and women with mentors are more likely to ask for stretch assignments and pay raises than their peers of the same gender without mentors.”
In the last year, I overcame my phone call aversion and sometimes now I’ll even take myself off of mute on conference calls and interject my thoughts. Baby steps. I’ve also come to realize how important it is for young professionals to have the right mentor, not only for career progression, but also to help them thrive in the workplace.
1. Help navigate tricky work situations. Not every day on the job is perfect and situations pop up in your professional life that you aren’t sure how to handle. Talking with someone you look up to can help you see the situation differently and help you keep your cool and remain professional. Often, your mentor is someone who’s accomplished in the field, or at your company, and can use their “I’ve seen it all” experience to help identify a solution to whatever challenge work throws your way. At my company we have a work instant messaging system which has been a great outlet for me to connect quickly with my mentor. Often just having a candid conversation about my frustrations helps me see the situation more clearly and I’m able to tackle the problem with more confidence and tact. Having a mentor to bounce ideas around with helps mentees to manage themselves professionally in the workplace, no matter the challenge.
2. Grow your career. Similarly, mentors can use their knowledge of the field to help you create achievable goals for your career progression and offer valuable insight on skills you’ll need to get where you aspire to go. Mentors can help you build on your strengths and encourage you to take on projects that complement those areas. On the flip side, truly great mentors will call out your weaker areas and encourage improvement to help you reach advancement. My mentor encourages me to keep my heart and dreams at the center of my career decisions, which has helped me evaluate each opportunity to make sure it’s one that aligns with where I want to go and what I want to do. Mentors help their mentees define strategies to establish themselves in their organization and field that will help them achieve their larger goals.
3. Teach by example. One of the core values of a mentorship is learning. Mentees can learn a great deal of technical skills, as well as personal and professional competencies by observing their mentors’ work style. One of the most memorable lessons my mentor taught me happened a few months ago when I had a planned vacation that fell during an important review right before a deadline. I emailed the team my cell phone number before I left and my mentor, who was managing the project, emailed back and said “We won’t be calling you.” She’d been assuring me all along that it was more important to spend time with my family than checking my emails or taking calls, but that email really drove the point home. By setting boundaries for her work teams, she influenced how I maintain my own work-life balance in every-day situations. Mentees can mirror their own work styles from competencies, skills, and behaviors they admire in their mentors.
4. Encourage you. Mentors can provide open and honest feedback that often you won’t get from a direct boss or supervisor. They help challenge you to meet your goals and give you reinforcement along the way. I’m a Millennial. And guess what—I like feedback. I use it to shape my choices at work, what skills I choose to focus on improving, and to set goals for myself. My mentor has an uncanny ability to provide feedback—the good and the gruesome, in a way that never feels critical but does helps me grow where and when I need to. The right mentor truly cares about their mentee and is invested in helping them achieve growth—even if it means giving an honest review of their mentee’s not-so-great qualities or work.
More on mentors:
Today I had my last work phone call with my mentor. Although I’m a bit sad (brave face), I applaud her ability to go after her own dreams and grow to reach her goals. I’m lucky to have learned so much in our time together at CH2M and look forward to watching with pride as she takes this next step on her journey.
So here’s to you Megan my pal—thank you for your influence, your time and your talent. I am a better person knowing you and without you I still wouldn’t know my extension or how to three-way call—so thanks for teaching me those crucial work competencies.
You stay classy, Oakland,
Kathryn E. Weast