Thursday, April 9, 2015

Who Could Want Me As a Mentor?

Over the years, colleagues have approached me with a request that sounds benign and that has been increasingly common, “Would you be my mentor?” For reasons I haven’t fully understood, I find these requests uncomfortable; recently, I have been trying to understand why.

It’s not the time commitment that bothers me. I am more than happy to help, and am willing to invest in the development of a colleague. 
Rather, it’s the presumption that I have any wisdom worthy of sharing that nags at me. I interpret the question with more formality than it likely deserves, but can’t seem to think otherwise.

To find the most effective way to diffuse my anxiety, I’ve recalled mentoring situations from my own past.
In my first job out of college, I rose through the ranks of an ultra-scientific firm doing research on the early forms of computer networking. I wasn’t smart enough to discover new science, so I focused on the management side of the business. 

Bill Dlugos was a recently retired USAF Colonel and he was hired into a role that oversaw my scope of responsibility. While I reported to Bill, he also served as a coach and mentor to me, without either of us ever using those words. 
Over the next few years, Bill would ask me how I was approaching problems and generously offered his time to give me advice around how I was thinking about the tasks at hand. The projects I was leading were cutting-edge and complex: deploying a communications capability to the FBI, connecting NATO’s operating locations across Europe, and working on sensitive intelligence programs.

I listened intently to Bill because he was experienced in the business and thoughtful about me. I can’t recall him ever directing me. He always asked what I was thinking about a situation, and what alternatives might be practical. Being a junior manager leading my first complex assignments, this was uplifting because of the confidence it showed Bill had in my abilities – even when my judgment was poor.
A few years later, in a job for which I felt similarly unprepared, Don Bowen (retired USAF Brigadier General) recognized my anxiety and reached out with an offer that we have coffee once a week to talk about what I was experiencing. No agenda, just coffee.

Both of these men initiated the mentoring relationship. They didn’t wait for me to ask for it. Both of them were in positions of authority, but never used their positions as the framework for our conversations.
Bill and Don were career military officers, accustomed to structure, discipline, planning, and order. For whatever reason, they saw in me a potential that warranted the investment of their precious time.

I hadn’t thought about Bill Dlugos or Don Bowen for many years. I lost touch with them long ago.
As I place these memories in the context of being asked by colleagues to serve as a mentor, I am ashamed. I should not need to be asked, I should initiate. There does not need to be any formality to the act; it ought to be natural and casual.

In fact, much later in my career when I carried considerable management responsibilities, the CEO of my firm said to me one day, “Your value is much greater by BEING, rather that DOING.”
I work today with a great group of young professionals, and maintain a rich network of past colleagues. I will be offering coffee more often than before. I may just be old enough now to overcome my insecurities.

Peter Allen has many years of operating experience as a top executive of rapidly-growing multi-billion dollar companies and in assessing sales and marketing effectiveness. He is now a Boston-based Managing Director at Alvarez & Marsal.

Image: wallyg/Flickr





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