National Mentoring Month

Two seated women hold a conversation in an office hallway to discuss mentoring

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January is National Mentoring Month. This celebration aims to raise awareness of the value mentoring brings to both mentors and mentees. It encourages people to become mentors and organizations to support mentoring programs.

We’re lucky at Catalyte to have developed a mentoring culture. Everyone, from brand new apprentices to senior leadership, believes in the power of mentoring and the business and personal benefits it offers.

To look deeper into the importance of mentoring, I spoke with three Catalytes at different stages of their mentor/mentee journeys: Christine Fox, apprentice program manager; Andrew Silverman, technical manager; and Edward Waters, software developer II. We discussed what traits/characteristics make for the best mentors and mentees, why you’re never too old to be a mentee, the importance of vulnerability and empathy in mentoring and how coaching and mentoring are similar, but different.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Curtis: How do each of you define mentoring?

Christine Fox: Mentoring is a trusting relationship. You have two people, where one person might have more wisdom and experience. And that person is there to guide, not to tell.

Andrew Silverman: Mentors are here for guidance, based on sharing our experiences. We’re trying to give mentees nudges in the right direction and hope they follow.

Edward Waters: I see it slightly differently. You do look for [mentors] for guidance. But since I’m still very much in the middle of my professional development, I’m just looking back a couple of years. Putting on the shoes I just wore. It’s helping people break out of their own self-doubt.

AC: Edward, how have you bridged being a mentee and mentor at the same time?

EW: That’s my superpower! I have unique insights and connections to peoples’ issues early in their careers. You take in what you can from the person above you and apply it to the person you were. And that helps you be the best mentor for new people.

AC: How do you balance being a senior leader/mentor and still connect with people so new in their careers and all the questions and issues they face?

AS: We always need mentors. We always have imposter syndrome. You’re always asked to do something new, something tough, something you haven’t seen before. There’s always someone with different knowledge than you. We need to be challenged.

CF: I definitely agree with Andrew. Experience allows you to know how to go about finding answers. When you’re more junior, you don’t have that ability.

One thing I think is very crucial is having vulnerability. Just being able to say, “I need help,” or as a mentor to say, “I don’t know that either but I’ll help you find the answer.” It’s collaborative. What Catalyte’s great at is that you can go to almost anybody and get that help

AC: Along with vulnerability is empathy. If you don’t have a culture of empathy, it’s hard to be vulnerable because you’re afraid you’ll be punished for not knowing, rather than being encouraged to find the answer. How can organizations or mentors build empathy in order to allow people to grow?

AS: You have to make it a safe space. We can tell when people are hiding their problems. So we’re going to pull it out of you, make you feel vulnerable and then build you back up.

AC: How do you promote mentoring without making it feel forced? 

AS: The most important thing is to listen. There are times when you want to give strong advice. But there are other times when you just have to nudge them. Build up your relationship and trust. Once you have that, you can be more direct. And the relationship isn’t a one-way thing where everything is coming down from the mentor. We learn so much from those we mentor.

EW: You have to make a personal connection. This is a professional relationship, but you need to make it a very real friendship. The more you care about the person, the more they’re going to give you. Christine is one of my mentors. She knows everything about me. And that’s extremely vital in how she’s able to help me.

AC: How formal can you make a mentoring program, then? How do you balance the structure of a mentoring program with the personal connection?

EW: It’s important to have the structures in place to put people where they need to be. It falls on the people involved to make the personal connection. You can’t rely on structure for that. If you’re a mentor, you need to take that upon yourself. It’s much better when you allow your humanity in. Lead with warmth and love and you get better back.

AC: Christine, we’ve talked about coaching before. Where is the difference or overlap between coaching and mentoring in apprenticeships?

CF: We have to look at them not as completely separate paths. You may be in a coaching session that turns into a mentoring one. You have to look at what you’re dealing with at that moment. Coaching, to me, is a little more tactical. Mentoring is a little more long term and strategic.

AC: Aside from vulnerability, empathy, giving and receiving feedback, asking questions…what are other important attributes to being an effective mentor or mentee?

AS: You can’t always be a friend. Sometimes, you have to be really firm and direct because that’s what needs to be done.

EW: For a mentee, it’s self-awareness. Know who you are. As a mentor, it’s memory. Remember where you once were. Three years ago I was a mechanic. Now I’m working in data science.

CF: You have to meet people where they’re at. It’s not cookie cutter. You’re never too old to be a mentee. Building that trust and care, and having skin in the game is important.

This post is adapted from a Sourcing for Innovation podcast. You can watch a preview of and listen to the whole conversation below.

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