“Do you have a few minutes so I could run something by you?”
These words come out of my mouth quite frequently to certain people. I’ve found that humility can be my greatest friend when I’m faced with difficult decisions. Let’s be frank about it – most times the decisions are difficult because we don’t know which way to go.
If you’ve lost direction or need help with progressing in the right direction, you could do worse than turn to coaching or mentoring. There’s a range of support opportunities available, which my friend Neil Wilkie, a qualified relationship coach and strategy consultant, pictures as a continuum:
“At one end there is Counselling – empathetically listening and gently helping the individual to find their own voice. This is often non-directional and non-outcome focussed.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Consultancy – telling the individual what they should do.
In between these extremes, there is Coaching – helping the individual through open questioning to find their own solutions to achieve their own goals.”
What Neil describes as coaching, I’ve also heard being referred to as mentoring. To me, the difference between coaching and mentoring is so academic that I’ll use the two terms interchangeably, although it’s probably just as vexing as people assuming that translation and interpreting are two words for the same thing.
Mentoring can be formal or informal, often to do with career growth and skills development. Sometimes it can be so informal that you’re not even sure whether you have a mentor or not. What’s most energising about the process is its purpose: to help you explore what may be holding you back from fulfilling your true potential. After all, the world doesn’t need a dulled shadow of you; it needs the most fully alive version of yourself you are able to give.
I have benefitted from coaching/mentoring twice in my professional life: most recently five years ago when I took on the role of CEO. My key question at the time was ‘am I cut out for this?’. Mentoring helped me examine the ideas that were limiting me or blocking me from achieving what I wanted to achieve. My biggest takeaway was that ‘I can do it’, and that in the areas where I’m not able to attain the highest level of mastery, I should build a team around me who are. That’s what I’ve been working towards ever since and I’m very grateful to have such an adroit management team running Sandberg with me.
Being a mentor
Can any leader who wants to ‘give back’ become a mentor? You need good listening skills and the ability to delve into problems, options and solutions with your mentee, for sure. And a structured plan wouldn’t go amiss either.
A few years back, I joined Women in Localization’s mentor matchmaking programme, which pairs established localisation industry professionals with those seeking guidance for their careers in the field.
One of my mentees was Marta (not her real name), a thirty-something translator who was questioning whether she wanted to translate any more. Having travelled extensively – which freelance translating suited excellently – she’d settled down and now lived permanently abroad. With no intention of returning to her native country, she felt her language and cultural skills would eventually fade, and she wanted a job that didn’t rely on her native language.
Marta had tried her hand at content creation, but felt it was not for her. She’d worked for a while as a data analyst and concluded the same. She had enrolled on a master’s degree programme in localisation hoping that it would lead to an in-house position at a language services company. But studying just wasn’t as inspiring as it had been on her bachelor’s course.
Over the months, we explored Marta’s interest in taking up a managerial role. I was able to assure her it wasn’t unrealistic to consider a career change in her thirties – I’d done the same. We spent time figuring out who she was as a person, and she finally concluded that although she was capable of performing as a part of a team or company, what she really wanted was to do her own thing.
When I last spoke with Marta, she was thinking of becoming an author in a field that really interested her, perhaps getting a book published one day. She said the mentorship had definitely been worth it, and even though I’d often lamented our lack of structure and milestones, for her just being able to talk to someone from the same industry but at a different stage in their career had been valuable.
Reversing the roles
Reverse mentoring is the opposite of traditional mentoring. Instead of a senior staff member imparting their wisdom to a junior recruit, the senior colleague listens and learns from the junior one. The primary objective is to enable senior managers to stay in touch with their organisation and the outside world, which often means educating them about something like technology or diversity. But the advantages go both ways, as more junior co-workers have an opportunity to understand and be heard by their senior colleagues.
I remember bringing the idea up at our management meeting a few years ago, and the first response from my peers was: ‘So Anu, are you admitting you can’t keep up?’. There lies the rub: reverse mentoring cannot be implemented in an organisation without humility.
A while back, I chatted to Texan coach and team-builder Shelly Priebe. Having seen her in action, I know what an awesome mentor she can be. We were comparing notes and discovered that our respective experiences with structured coaching programmes had sometimes left us flat. Shelly surmised that perhaps the best mentoring right now happens organically.
With that in mind, I encourage you to go and seek out a mentorship for yourself. Right now.
Seven months ago, we were all facing the global pandemic together, bracing ourselves for the challenge of saving lives. Now our experiences have diverged: different countries and regions are at different stages of the fight, battling with varying degrees of restrictions and sacrifice. We encounter discord and seemingly impossible asks, and we need to get through them without ending up exhausted and burnt out. A powerful mentorship won’t erase the trouble and chaos, but can help us find our own path amidst that chaos.