MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you find a mentor? is written by Rebecca Rhoads, president of global business services at Raytheon.
Years ago p eople thought differently about mentors and mentoring. Today, we’re much more engaged. If you’re early in your career, it’s a way to tap someone else’s experience to avoid pitfalls and find opportunities. And even if you have some experience, mentoring is a great way to pay it forward.
When I was a young engineer, I was a woman in a field that was even more dominated by men than it is now. I didn’t look like the executives who might have mentored me. I wasn’t playing golf on the same courses. They didn’t see a younger version of themselves when they looked at me, so they wouldn’t necessarily pull me aside and say, “Do you want me to mentor you?” As it happened, I found one of my most valuable mentors by chance. He was the father of a friend and a CEO in a different industry.
One of the factors that made my mentor so valuable to me was that he wasn ’ t in the same industry as me . He was somebody I could reach out to early in my career, not because he understood engineering – he didn’t – but because he understood the business and corporate environment. He was able to help guide me through the stretches and challenges of promotions, as I navigated transitions into leadership positions, and when I needed to deliver at a higher level. He was someone I could talk to plainly in times of change. He had been through all of the same challenges and was very much in tune with what I was experiencing.
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In a way, I felt more comfortable with him than with those in my chain of command or my workplace. Part of the reason is explained by the old adage, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.” Because I was a woman in a field that was traditionally male, at that time it was much easier for me to share any self-doubts, any struggles I was having at work -- to simply ask for help -- with someone outside my company. One of the lessons the experience taught me -- and it may surprise people, because it surprised me -- was that if you’re looking for a mentor, you may find great value by seeking out someone who is not like you. If you look only for people like you, then you may miss the chance to learn about other perspectives that are very different from yours.
Mentoring is an expression of leadership. When I speak to women’s groups, many people who want to talk to me afterwards are men who happen to be attending. I feel like I’m talking about gender issues because that’s how I identify myself, but it turns out they are also working parent issues. And work-life balance issues. They’re challenges that many share. Years ago, I had a situation where I had a fundamental difference of opinion with someone. When I mentioned this challenge to a mentor, he shared a pearl of wisdom that I continue to carry with me. “If there are two of you that act the same, look the same, and think the same, one of you is redundant.” That comment helped me appreciate that differing opinions and perspectives add value.