I belong to a number of informal groups that get together to look at issues of the day facing our professions. There are some disheartening statistics, but some great innovative thinking as well. Disheartening is the number of times we’ve met to discus the “future” of our profession and how we can be more valued (and valuable) to the organizations we serve. In my professional circles we’ve been talking about this for decades…and the same key points keep coming up, yet we don’t seem to be making much headway (since we’re all still talking about it – in the last meeting I was at the facilitator referred to it as “naval gazing” - an apt description). It don’t think it matters what profession you are in, you are likely having this discussion either informally with colleagues or more robustly in your professional associations – at least once a year there is likely a forum, round table, panel or speaker series that discusses the barriers your profession has and what to do to overcome them. This is the discussion that helps to focus both what you can do as an individual and what a community of professionals can do to make a more positive impact.
Something that consistently comes forward in these conversations is the lack of mentorship or exposure to both other facets of our profession and the perspective from one generation to another. Some professions are better at this than others, but in my experience, we’ve left the “up and comers” to their own devices, while commenting on how beneficial it would have been to have had a mentor to bring us to another level of exposure fostering deeper development (a lapse which I think may be the very definition of naval gazing). Mentoring programs are the responsibility of…educational institutions? Employers? Professional Associations? It’s an interesting question – and we all know the answer – those of us who are established in a profession are responsible for mentorship. We can leverage programs that are in place to build these types of relationships, or we can informally offer our time to those who’d benefit, but ultimately if we don’t give of ourselves, mentoring doesn’t happen.
Here is a call to action. If you feel that you would have benefited from a mentor in your professional career (or maybe you did benefit from one), why not become one? It’s not complicated, there are great guides to help make this a positive and reciprocal experience (as we should be learning as much from a mentee as we give). To get you started here is an excellent article from Forbes that outlines the essence of what happens in a mentor/mentee relationship (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/05/17/how-to-become-a-great-mentor/). Mentorship is neither time consuming, nor does it need a complicated structure of “matching”. Start by having a phone call or meeting for coffee, see how the first step feels. Foster a relationship based on the informal exchange of information from different points of view, be accessible to questions (make it a “safe” space for your mentee to ask “dumb” questions) and teach, don’t “solve”. Looking at it another way, leadership extends well beyond the boardroom or overseeing the work of others. True leaders have these qualities threaded throughout their personal and professional lives and choosing to spend time fostering leadership and professional qualities in others is important. We all know someone early in her or his career who is looking for a sounding board – why not meet with them once a month to do that?
Professional navel gazing is not productive, it leads to some exciting and robust discussions, but ultimately it is as effective as quarterbacking a football game from the armchair in your living room. In order to affect real change you need to be in the game, not discussing it. Will mentoring someone halt all repeat discussions about our various professions “barriers” or “future”? No, but it will reduce the element of navel gazing, because mentorship is contributing, it’s enabling an iterative process of learning to take place that will allow any profession to become stronger and more effective over time.
Make a commitment to buy coffee for someone whose professional career could use a mentor. It is something tangible we can all do to keep our professions growing and vibrant.