How mentoring others helps me

This is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the CanWIT e-Mentoring program’s blog. I mentor three women through the program, and the program’s Community Manager, Colleen Fraser, asked me to write about what I get out of  being a mentor. Here is my response.

Doing What I Know: What mentoring does for me

Long before I realized that I was a geek who loves technology, I was a French Horn player. Throughout high school and my music degree, I studied with a teacher who influenced me in more ways than just my ability to produce beautiful music from a coiled brass cone. My horn teacher was a major influence on me, and to this day his words often come to mind in my business life.

Among the things he often told me was this:

“It’s not that you don’t know what to do. You just don’t do what you know.”

Only now, those words have even more meaning because as a mentor I find myself giving advice that I need to remind myself of as well.

Mentoring others benefits me in many ways, but as I reflect on some recent experiences I’m struck by how much mentoring others is a reminder to “do what I know”.

Case in point. One of the women I mentor through CanWIT’s e-mentoring program was struggling with how to package herself to get noticed and valued by potential employers. She was dealing with a dilemma I often have as well. Her skills are both broad and deep, and there are many roles she could love and excel in. If she describes herself too generally, though, she won’t resonate with employers seeking a particular subset of her skills. But if she targets too narrowly, she won’t be noticed by those wanting skills she hasn’t highlighted. So what to do?

It’s an issue I’ve wrestled with as well. I excel as a product development leader, but also in business development and marketing. I’ve achieved great things leading teams in large bureaucracies, but also as a maverick individual contributor aligning others only through influence. Which Sandi should I promote?

It’s easy when there is a known, posted opening because we can tailor to the position. But most jobs aren’t posted so what about more general communications? When networking, people say, “What do you do? What role are you looking for?” Telling them, “It depends” doesn’t get us very far.

As I talked with my mentee, I found myself relaying a marketing class experience where the goal was to select a target segment and position the product for them. Most in my workgroup struggled with concern that we would miss most of the mass market by choosing a target segment, but it was clear to me that we would miss ALL of the mass market if we didn’t target anyone. By explaining what our product could do for one segment, we inspired the others. Now they could see the product’s value and come up with their own use case for it.

I’d seen that many times over, presenting potential uses for technical products to businesses and watching the magic as the customers began to chat amongst themselves about how it could work in their business. I felt cocky because my classmates were learning something I’d known for ages.

I didn’t feel so cocky when telling the story to my mentee, though.

I couldn’t, because the story was reinforcing what I’d been doing wrong in looking for a job or projects for my company. I wasn’t giving my target markets much of a clue what I could do for them. I was hoping they’d see a list of “Sandi product features” and figure out how they could use me.

Why? Because I was afraid that by defining my value to any of them, I’d miss out on the rest.

It’s not that I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t do what I know…

By teaching what I know to someone else, I reminded myself what I know about product marketing and realized I wasn’t doing that for “product Sandi”.

I think this is one of the most valuable things about mentoring, and another recent experience reinforced it as well.

I had the opportunity to get advice from a very senior executive – a successful CEO and board member who was generous enough to give me some of her time. After she’d given me a bunch of really valuable insights, she asked for my feedback on HER resume. Yikes! I was nervous. What do I know about a CEO/Board Member resume, I thought? How could I possibly add value? But it was the least I could do in return so I said I’d be happy to.

She sent me her resume, and as I stared at it (marvelling at how effectively she had summarized decades of experience on only 2 pages), something stood out to me as missing, one of the basics of resume writing. I wasn’t sure it would apply to a CEO, and I was nervous that she might see my feedback as evidence that I’m not at her level, but I bit the bullet and sent her a note telling her what seemed to be missing, Her response?

“You’re right… don’t know how many times I’ve told others that”

Wow.

It’s not that she didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t done what she knows. Just like I sometimes don’t. Like we all sometimes don’t.

And so it goes. Even the best of us don’t always do what we know.

Mentoring young colleagues, and even advising someone senior to me, gives me a chance to look at myself through a different lens and to hear myself offering the advice to others that I myself need most.

Mentoring reminds me to “do what I know”. I’m grateful to those who accept my mentorship for those reminders. I can only hope that they get as much from our interactions as I do.

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About Sandi_Jones
Technical marketer, product developer, geek, unconventional entrepreneur. I fell in love with technology in the mid-90's, found my inner geek, and never looked back.

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