8 Mentoring Lessons for the High Achiever
“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” ~ Bob Proctor
If you have mentors in your life, you already know their wisdom goes far beyond teaching you how to navigate office politics and when and how to prepare for your next career opportunity. Mentors provide a safe place where you can be vulnerable and where you can explore your dreams and aspirations and learn more about yourself, personally and professionally. I have been lucky enough to have mentors throughout my career who invested their time and expertise to advise and teach me lessons that helped me reach my career goals, and even better, that helped me become a better person. I’m sharing these 8 lessons I learned from my mentors because I believe they are valuable for any person, and particularly for the high achiever, who sometimes has a difficult time seeing the greatness that lies within.
1. If the job you want doesn’t exist, create it.
I watched my mentor, Gaye, transition from a call center general manager to a senior leader in the company’s information technology department. Gaye identified a company need for a technology consultant and liaison with external clients, and then committed herself to learning about the company’s technology capabilities. She persuaded the chief executives that she was the person to fill the gap. The lesson here is to keep your eyes and ears open, to continue learning, and to seize the opportunity to satisfy a company need and creatively evolve your own career. Feeling stuck in a dead-end job is rare if you follow Gaye’s advice. Whether you reinvent your current role (which is what I have done a few times) or make a case for a new position as Gaye did, this lesson can lead to increased career mobility and satisfaction.
2. Be Relatable
High achievers keep their eyes on the goal. Sometimes with this maniacal focus on getting things done, they can deprioritize the human connection. My mentor, Tim, taught me a lot about emotional intelligence and the art of being relatable, which is essential to influencing others. Earlier in my career, when I presented project proposals to senior leaders for their buy-in, Tim noticed my reserved and formal style. I attribute it to my introversion as much as to my desire for achievement. I tended to be singularly focused on the business reason for being in the room. He advised me to display more ease, smile more, and relate to the leaders informally and personably before presenting the proposed project. It worked like a charm. Why? Because people are naturally drawn to, and form favorable impressions of, persons they feel comfortable with. The next time you need to inspire or influence others to achieve a goal, remember how you relate to them is just as important as the goal itself.
3. Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone
I’m sure you know all the maxims about how real growth happens when you step outside your comfort zone. Yet, fear can still be a powerful force. For me, when I left my learning and development role to run a call center operation for 18 months, I was certainly not comfortable. Two of my mentors, Joe and Doug, convinced me to take the role to demonstrate my versatility and to expand my potential for greater leadership roles in the future. It was a huge stretch for me and turned out to be one of the best career decisions I made. What Joe and Doug taught me, and what I believe all high achievers can benefit from, is to stare fear down and experiment and take smart risks. You were never meant to remain in your comfort zone; it’s a temporary dwelling place for stability. You cannot grow there. If you stay too long, stability turns into stagnation and stagnation turns into death. Take opportunities, when they arise, to grow. You are capable of so much more than you think. Go for it.
4. Know the People and Know the Business
My current manager is also one of my mentors. When I joined the company 10 years ago, he and I discussed the plan for my first 90 days. He said to keep it simple: know the people and know the business. His advice gives the nod to two career truths. Organizations are human systems where relationships are paramount to success. And, knowing the business helps me work on things that are relevant to the company’s success. Relevancy leads to credibility. The lesson is to resist the temptation to come in and immediately make sweeping changes. Making bold moves without having built relationships and without having solid business context could prove disastrous.
5. Focus on Solving Business Problems
I love my work. One of my greatest joys is helping individuals and teams reach their fullest potential. In my job, I am responsible for creating initiatives that impact the 3 E’s: engagement, effectiveness, and efficiency. But, in my ear, I still hear my mentor Joe telling me, “Tonya, not everyone has the same passion about your work as you do.” Joe was not saying my work was insignificant. What he was telling me is that the best initiatives at the wrong time are worthless. Joe helped me understand that people can only absorb so much at a given time. Think about Joe’s advice in the context of your work. What is keeping people up at night? Take the actions that position you as a problem solver.
6. It’s Not That Complicated
I have a coworker who is a walking encyclopedia, news organization, and company historian all wrapped up in one. He is smart and thoughtful. He’s a man of few words, but when he speaks, everyone listens. He makes everyone around him smarter. I told my mentor, Ed, how inferior I sometimes feel when I compare my business knowledge to my coworker’s. Comparing is a typical response of the high achiever. It’s not even a realistic comparison because my coworker has been with the company twice as long as I have. Ed is a matter-of-fact leader, a company veteran, profoundly knowledgeable and also a man of few words. Ed told me, “It’s not that complicated.” He told me the five things I should always monitor to understand the business. Those things, he said, cover over 80 percent of what really matters. Ed’s advice reinforces the 80/20 rule: it takes only 20% of the right information to understand 80% of the business. However, his other point is just as valuable for the high achiever: don’t overvalue others and undervalue yourself.
“A mentor helps you to perceive your own weaknesses and confront them with courage.” ~ Anonymous
7. Take the Job No One Else Wants
I agree this lesson is tricky. It is wise to understand why no one may want the role and weigh its merits. However, if the reason is that it’s risky, requires sacrifice, or is not as prestigious, those may not be good enough to turn down the opportunity. My mentor, Doug, who led sales teams for many different organizations across industries attributed his career success to a willingness to take on jobs that other people didn’t want to do. In some cases, the duties entailed grunt work. He did them anyway. And because he demonstrated his readiness to do whatever it took to learn and help the company, he found himself on an accelerated path to senior leadership. The lesson is not to let ego keep you from realizing an excellent opportunity. It’s worth remembering that sometimes the path to bigger and better things is not paved. Sometimes it’s a grassy road in want of wear. Don’t be afraid to blaze trails.
8. Exorcise Your Fears
Several years ago I received a job offer. Accepting the role required me to relocate. It was a big decision. I tried to rationalize why I should not take the position. It was an inconvenient time to make a change because I was finishing my doctoral studies. I was already a high potential employee at the company, and I loved where I worked. Sounds like the comfort zone, right? I met with my mentor, Tim, and he asked me why I was afraid. I didn’t recognize that my hesitation was due to fear, but it was. I had a fear of uncertainty, of letting go, and of failing. I decided to exorcise my fears and accept the job. I have no regrets. I have been with my current company for 10 years. I am a high potential, and I love where I work. The lesson from this experience and Tim’s advice is that your fear can keep you from the next big thing. Don’t let it. If you are a valued employee at one company, you will likely be a valued employee at another. Your talents, knowledge, and skills belong to you and they travel with you.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou
I am grateful for my mentors. Their wise counsel, coaching, and advocacy have helped me be a better person and leader. They helped me increase my business acumen, develop skills, seize opportunities, and make career moves when needed. I am especially thankful because I know they care about me. I hope what my mentors taught me will benefit you as well. Perhaps the most important lesson I can share is, if you don’t have a mentor today, find one.