Today’s definition of mentorship is fairly nebulous. Is a mentor a coach, a confidant or perhaps someone that quietly helps behind the scenes? The truth is that it likely falls somewhere in between all of these.
There are formally-structured mentoring relationships and ones that are more loosely-defined. But for those of us who have had the fortune of having strong mentors, formal or informal, we know that it is far less about the structure and more about the impact. As mentors ourselves, we should simply strive to leave impact on our mentees, as mentorship truly is the most direct way to leave a professional legacy.
I was recently shocked to learn about the sudden death of my earliest mentor. Although I hadn’t spoken to him in nine or 10 years, I distinctly remember this man who took a chance on me some 20 years ago. With his passing, I’ve suddenly been thrown back into the earliest days of my career, and I’ve realized that the central theme to my career progression is one of mentorship and guidance. He was the first person to take an interest in me professionally, and he helped guide me into my first role- -- a foot in the proverbial high-tech door.
There’s a poem that comes to mind as I think about my formal and informal mentors -- that every person enters your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.
If I think about the pivotal moments in my career, there’s an individual associated with each one. These informal mentors have likely opened -- or closed -- a door, fought for me, or they have been a gracious touchstone when I hit a wall.
Mentors can also play an extended role. I still use much of the guidance I received from my first boss. She gave me great advice about being one of the only women in the room -- invaluable safety tips about traveling alone and how to conduct myself on the road and in meetings with clients, partners, peers and superiors.
Another boss constantly encouraged me to be creative and independent in my role, and he would take the grief if one of my ideas backfired. Some did. He regularly pushed me out of my comfort zone, giving me the confidence to move into larger, more strategic roles.
I have benefited greatly from my lifetime mentor for the majority of my career. He was the first executive to give me a global role and a roadmap to becoming an executive myself. He has never been easy on me. In fact, he didn’t communicate direction often, as he expected me to come to him with ideas and to champion myself. He hired me at four companies over the course of 10 years into larger and more challenging roles each time.
As much as he directly pushed me, so much of what I learned from him was through observation. He navigated tumultuous internal politics with grace, and he seamlessly led global organizations through unprecedented growth. I watched him build organizational culture, enable business transformation and evolve his leadership style. As the CEO of my own company now, I constantly draw on all that I learned from him.
Whether these mentor relationships were short or long, it doesn’t negate the impact each had on my life and career. From all of my mentors, I have learned that it was critical for me to create my own path and to hold onto those characteristics that made me unique.
Now as a mentor myself, I recognize that it may not be my decision whether I am in these rising stars’ lives for a reason, or a season or a lifetime. Yet, if I can leave an impression on my mentees as my mentors have for me, I feel like I have passed on an incredible gift.
To my first mentor’s twin boys, please know that your father was a tremendously gracious, strong and supportive man. To say I was lucky to know him is an understatement, and I’m forever grateful for the kindness he showed me. He may have only been in my life for a brief time, but his impact will last a lifetime.
Through his mentorship, his legacy will live on.