I just gave a speech on mentoring to a group here in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada that I thought I’d share with you :)

Mentoring – a life practice

Luncheon speech by Kellie Garrett, March 21, 2014 to Mentors & Protégés,

Edwards School of Business Mentorship Program, University of Saskatchewan

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CONGRATULATIONS to all of you for serving each other as mentors and protégés. Some of you will remain in contact for many years to come. I am still in contact with some of my early mentors and protégés.

My view is that mentoring – as a mentor and a protégé – is both a philosophy and a life practice.

To illustrate my philosophy, I’m going to talk about three things:

  1. Mentoring isn’t always formal and can exist everywhere
  2. The essential foundations of trust and straight talk, and
  3. Paying it forward, over and over again

#1: Mentoring isn’t always formal and can exist everywhere

Mentoring is often thought of as a formal relationship in a business context, but experience showed me that it can be completely informal and pervade every aspect of our lives during its various phases.

Mentoring relationships can exist from our earliest days of childhood. We can be alert to mentors and actively learn from them, whether it’s a formal relationship or not. We can choose to mentor those we come across at all stages of life, sometimes without others realizing it.

As children, some of us are lucky enough to have siblings, parents, teachers and friends who have our backs 100%, tell it like it is, and nurture the relationship. Some start mentoring others as very small children.

My youngest son has autism, and he was taught how to soothe himself when he was upset. This involved deep breathing and deep pressure.

One day, I was upstairs in my den – under desk – swearing

Connor appeared.

Mom, you are vewwy angry!

Stand up!

Breathe, deep pressure on my arm.

Wow. I had just been mentored by a child who couldn’t read or write, struggled to make eye contact and was in a class for kids with IQs of less than 50.

Now this was certainly not a formal mentoring arrangement. And experience would show that if anyone was going to do the mentoring, it would have been me. But not so in this case.

So mentors are everywhere.

In grade 4, my lively and dominant personality was already starting to bloom, and my career as class clown was starting up. My teacher took me aside at recess one day. I adored this teacher.

“You know how you make the class laugh?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” I said proudly.

“And you know how you’re finishing all the work first whenever I hand out an assignment?”

“Yes!” I said, prouder.

“Well how do you think it makes the other kids feel? You’re finished your work, and then you’re entertaining them while they’re trying to finish theirs.”

I was uncharacteristically speechless. “Um – happy?”

“Well maybe for awhile, but then they have homework because of you.”

I was taken aback.

“So I’m going to have you sit in the front of the class, and I’m going to be a bit stern when I ask you to move, but between you and me, it’s because I want the others to succeed as much as I want you to.”

I felt simultaneously warm inside and embarrassed.

What a great example of mentorship. My teacher wanted me to feel special, but also wanted me to see that it wasn’t all about me.

What was so brilliant about her approach was that I knew she had my back 100%, she believed in me, and she wanted me to shine.

In my second job as a communications officer in a Toronto teaching hospital, my boss noticed that I had trouble focusing for long periods of time. It was a crazy job with regular interruptions from journalists or walk-in requests. I also was friendly and great at building relationships. So I often took longer than I needed to to resolve an issue, and often didn’t settle down to the writing work much during the day. Fortunately, I was super conscientious, so my work always got done, but I often stayed at work until 9 at night.

One morning, she sat me down and said, “Kellie, what’s your mission in life today?” I was stumped.

“I mean, what things on your to-do list absolutely have to get done before you leave tonight?”

That was easy. She had me write it down. It was a long list.

Ok, let’s order it by importance.

She was better at it than I was because I thought all of them were #1s.

“So which things deserve platinum treatment?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You know, the ones that have to be done uber well vs. just git ‘er done things.”

I’d seriously never thought in those terms. Anyway, she helped me figure it out, and she held it to me day after day. She had three children under the age of 2 (she had twins, for the mathematicians in the crowd J). She was the most productive human I’ve ever met. So she not only helped me see how I was getting in my own way, she modeled the behaviour she was talking about.

Every day, I use her mantra “What is my mission in life today?” Her name is Jodi Macpherson, and she is a dear friend to this day. We met in 1988.

Another example came from John Ryan, a CEO at FCC whom I had the pleasure of working with for 10 years. In 2000, I was on my honeymoon. My husband and I spent three glorious weeks in Europe and came home for 2 days to pick up my kids and go canoeing with my Dad out East. I got a call from the CEO’s assistant. You need to meet with John today, she said. My heart sank. But he knows I’m on my honeymoon, right? I mean, we’re leaving tomorrow.

Yup. I don’t know what it is, but he says it’s super urgent.

Can’t we just talk on the phone?

Nope.

A zillion scenarios went through my mind, none of them good.

John went through the pleasantries and then said he wanted me to take a two-year assignment as the VP of Marketing. I said absolutely not, I don’t know anything about call centres or financial product development. He said, “Do you trust me?”

I said, “Of course. I would do anything for you.” Oops.

He said, “Then the deal is done.”

Six years later, we were sitting on a plane. “Have you thought of running for my job?” he said.

I snorted.

“I’m serious. Why not?”

“Because it’s a multi-billion dollar financial institution and I’m anything but financial.”

“But you could learn that. You could go to Harvard.”

Ouch. I am a school geek. Harvard. Are you kidding me!!!

“And you trust my judgment, right?”

I rolled my eyes. He knew he had me, again.

Mentoring doesn’t have to be continuous or even in relationship. For example, a one-time mentoring event occurred when I was at Harvard in the Advanced Management Program. The 15 women in our class of 154 had a luncheon with a visiting female professor. All of our regular profs were men, and we had experienced sexism from some of our male peer students and professors.  We asked her opinions on this topic. She said that she was an anthropologist, and that if one looked at human civilization as a continuum, then we were existing during a microcosm of that continuum. From that perspective, she thought the velocity of progressive change we were experiencing was amazing – both as a civilization and as women. Think of how much we have accomplished, even in 25 years, she said.

Her male MBA students gave her great hope, she added. They fully expected to be equal partners with their future wives (or husbands) in terms of career importance and child-rearing.

“But does that mean we just ignore sexism when it occurs?” we asked plaintively. She said of course not. Boston has lots of rainy weather, so everyone carries an umbrella. When it rains, you use it.

Sexism is still pervasive in business, so expect it, but don’t obsess over it. Use your figurative umbrella when necessary, and get on with it. When really necessary, address it. She made us uncomfortable and not all of us agreed with her, but her one-event mentoring advice remains with me to this day.

Mentors have continually pushed me way outside my comfort zone. They have pushed me, cajoled me and hectored me into trying things I felt certain I could not do. And sometimes it didn’t work out. I didn’t win the CEO job, for example. But the learning was amazing.

~~~

So mentoring isn’t always a formal arrangement, and it exists everywhere, which leads me to my second point, which is this:

The essential foundations of mentorship are trust and straight talk

What’s common to each of my stories is the foundation of trust.

Throughout life, our hearts and minds are truly open to those who believe in us.

It astonishes me how direct we can be in sharing feedback with each other if it comes from a place of absolute trust.

And I know that trust was one of the foundational concepts that you discussed at the start of your mentorship program here.

If you’re a mentor – People can’t hear your good advice if they don’t trust you, so building trust 1st is paramount – ideas on how to build trust (share vulnerabilities, stories, etc.)

If you’re a protégé – trust matters from your side of the equation too. Mentor needs to trust confidentiality, that you’re using their ideas.

In all cases, I felt the other person had my back 100%. I trusted them completely.

When you trust someone, you are able and willing to engage in straight talk, aka no beating around the bush.

The link from Forbes on how to make a business mentoring relationship work talked about the distinction between a mentor, a friend and a coach. A mentor needs to tell you what you need to hear. If you’re a mentor, don’t hold back. If you’re a mentee, be curious. This is gold, given to you for free to help you shine. Sometimes you will vehemently disagree with your mentor. That’s ok.

Honesty – it can be tempting to hold back from sharing things that you think you’re not doing well because you don’t want the mentor to think badly of you. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the mentor doesn’t hear real worries, issues, he or she can’t help you nearly as much.

All of you who are protégés will go on to have all kinds of careers. You will serve in formal and informal leadership positions.

You will feel pressure beyond your wildest dreams, and building relationships that aren’t vital will feel like discretionary effort that you just don’t have the time to give.

But it doesn’t need to take hours. Even walking around the floor and stopping in to share feedback with someone several levels down from you is priceless. In my last job, I would hand deliver items I had approved. Sometimes it was a strategist who was working on a Board presentation. I’d ask if they had a few minutes, and sit down to share what I’d thought they’d done well and what could be altered. I’d ask their opinion on my thoughts. Then I’d ask how it was going with whatever I remembered from our last interaction. I remember one exchange with a woman I didn’t know very well who told me that she was struggling with stress management. I was so honoured that she would take the risk to share that with her senior VP. I shared my struggles with stress and some of the things that had worked for me. The whole exchange took 20 minutes. At my retirement, she stood up and shared this story.

Everyone you come across in life could use more trust, more ideas on how to get out of their own way and more mentoring.

Which brings me to point #3

Paying it forward, over and over again

I have very few formal mentoring relationships at this point in my life. However, I have dozens of informal ones. I never hesitate to share my perceptions of how protégés are doing exceptionally well, and how they might be getting in their own way.

And at the ripe old age of 54, I am still learning. (Michelangelo said that at age 87, so I’m in good company!) I am eager to be a protégé any time. My sister is doing meditation certification and is mentoring me on how to relax, which I suck at. A dear friend of mine is dragging me off to a 5K run this summer, and I am a lifelong hedonistic sloth. A fellow entrepreneur has taken me under her wing to show me the ropes on all kinds of intangible aspects of running a business. My son with autism awkwardly hugged my mother-in-law last week at her husband’s funeral and said “I’m here for you, Joyce.” My mind burst open with understanding that he does have empathy, despite what all the doctors say about autism. I am so grateful.

~~~

To close, as I said earlier, everyone you come across in life could use more trust, more ideas on how to get out of their own way and more mentoring.

So wherever your life and career path may take you, take the time to mentor … and never stop being a protégé.

Thank you!! :)