Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson in season 7 of Parks and Recreation. Photograph by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Commentary

Your Mentor Might Actually Be Working for You

Jan 09, 2017

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you find a mentor?” is written by David P. Nelson, president of Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

I met John, a highly regarded expert in higher education, through a mutual friend and soon hired him as a consultant to help me assess organizational development in the college where I worked. At the conclusion of the consultation, he encouraged me to consider expanding my vision of what I might do in my career. Over the next few years, John became a trusted advisor and teacher. He appeared in my life unexpectedly, and his perspective and encouragement has substantially influenced my career ever since.

Here’s some advice about how to make the most of the opportunity when a mentor such as John appears in your life.

Be open-minded

A mentor takes different forms at different points in life. Maybe it’s a teacher who takes interest in you, or a colleague or boss who ends up influencing how you think, work, and lead. Or maybe it’s someone who works for you. I personally learned valuable management skills from two colleagues who worked for me: an executive assistant and an associate vice-president. I learned to improve my listening skills by watching both colleagues listen patiently to understand other perspectives and to entertain different viewpoints. As a result, I’m a better, more active listener and a better leader because of it.

Be observant

Don’t underestimate the value of simply observing good leaders. As you identify people who are effective, watch how they work and interact with others, especially in difficult circumstances. See what they say—and don’t say. Note how they listen, solve problems, and spend their time.

I once worked for someone whose resume included the leadership of two major U.S. universities. By watching this individual, I learned how to spend my time on things that matter most, and how to assign responsibility for decision-making to the proper people in an organization.

Be available

To gain wisdom from a mentor, you’ll have to spend time with them. How you manage time in relation to your mentor matters. You might be surprised by how often a mentor will let you into their schedule if you simply ask. And when they say “yes,” make the most of the opportunity.

Be vulnerable

The most valuable mentorship occurs when you are transparent about where you are and what you need to learn. An important way to profit from a mentor is to trust them enough to lay out your ideas, be willing to receive feedback and exchange ideas, and accept criticism. If you only want affirmation from a mentor, then your return on the investment will be low. While vulnerability involves risk, the more you risk, the more you stand to profit.

Be curious

Curiosity about your mentor will leave you open to their guidance. Listen in order to understand, not to respond. You should also practice curiosity about yourself. Wise questioning from your mentor will help you understand your thinking patterns and motives better.

Mentors are all around you. If you are open, observant, available, vulnerable, and curious, you will find each other. And when you do, you will find the experience most valuable if you are prepared to honestly look within.

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