When I was a young kid, I wanted to be the Incredible Hulk. However, my desire to be a super hero was different than that of my friends at school because of one small nuance: I spent time with Hulk. I knew that he woke up at 5:00am every morning to do cardio, and some days I would join him. I knew that he liked to put black pepper on almost everything he ate. I had the opportunity most evenings to watch him lift weights, and WOW! He was strong. And the green paint? Well, that was just for television and public appearances. You see I lived with the Incredible Hulk… he was my dad.
I have a vivid memory of when I was about five years old: My father (a.k.a. Hulk) was doing bench press in the basement, and I could hear his exhale with each rep. And then it stopped. Next came a struggled yell for help, followed by my mother running down the stairs in a panic, and then two incredibly loud thuds. My mother helped him dump the weights. And for the first time in my life, I realized that everyone, even a super hero, needs help sometimes.
Your career is no different. Neither is mine. We all need help. I recently completed a fun exercise: I listed as many people as I could think of that have helped me in my 15 year career. In about 10 minutes, I wrote down the names of 94 people, and I could have kept going. The old saying is true, sometimes it does take a village! Among these individuals, there are a few who have had the greatest impact on my career due to their willingness to serve as my mentors. In keeping with the theme of seeking help, I’ve asked two of them, Vanguard senior leaders Marissa Blank and Steve Holman, to come alongside me to construct a guide on how to establish a strong mentorship relationship.
- Engage with individuals naturally: The best way to build trusting relationships is to allow connections to occur naturally through your network. As Steve shares, “While formal mentorship programs can work, my experience has been the best mentor relationships happen organically. There has to be a deeper bond or connection to develop a relationship that allows both parties to go beyond superficial conversation and pleasantries.” Start meeting with leaders in your immediate department to discuss your career, and ask for ‘referrals’ on who they’d recommend you meet with. Over the course of time, you’ll get to know a lot of individuals and likely connect with a couple of them as ongoing mentors.
- Be intentional about who you engage for different topics: In Marissa’s experience, “Each mentor I have in my network helps me with different things. Some are fantastic strategic thinkers, while others are great at vetting career options and next steps.” Connecting with mentors in this way will also allow you to go deep on important career topics rather than staying surface level.
- Don’t be afraid to ask….for anything!: Sometimes fear is the only thing preventing us from moving forward, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. People generally want to help others succeed. “I have never had someone tell me no when I have asked for time.” says Marissa. I have personally experienced the same.
- Come prepared with one key item you wish to discuss, and send agenda beforehand: This may be an obvious one, but it is one that can be often overlooked. Ensuring you are being respectful of your mentor’s time is important, especially if this is a new professional relationship where a friendship has yet to develop. In Marissa’s experience: “The mentor relationships that have been the most productive are those where the mentee comes prepared, whether they bring a thoughtful topic to discuss, provide an update on their respective business or share insight into their career planning.” Steve agrees, “Ask specific questions about where you think you need help. Seek insight about situations you’ve experienced. Don’t force your mentor to have to guess what you need.”
- Don’t be afraid to share your fears or failures: As Steve shares, “those are where your biggest opportunities for growth exist, and potentially where your mentor can help you the most.” If trust is established in the professional relationship, then this should be a ‘safe space’ to be completely honest, let your guard down, and get insightful feedback.
- Be thoughtful about how often you meet with mentors: Marissa says, “I have some mentors where we only connect once a year or as something arises, where others are more frequent given the type of relationship we have.” You want to balance ensuring that your meeting time is valuably used with maintaining the relationship. For many, a couple of quick emails in between meetings can keep the conversation going without the logistics of face-to-face time.
- Show interest in your mentor’s career: The more you understand their career, the more you will learn from them. And who knows, you may be able to teach your mentor something that helps them too. Marissa has a reputation for formulating successful teams, and I have indirectly learned from her to be comfortable ‘thinking outside the box’ when looking for talented individuals. Steve has an innate ability to balance professionalism with ‘being real’ and has taught me to feel comfortable bringing my full self to work every day.
I may never actually become the Incredible Hulk and save the world, but that’s okay… becoming someone’s mentor and positively impacting their life is just as fulfilling. In this season of giving, let’s show thanks to those who have helped us by committing to help others in their career.
Matt with his mentors, Marissa and Steve.