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From Mentors’ and Mentees’ Mouths

By Sherri Petro (1375 words)
Posted in Professional Development on March 27, 2014

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Do you ever wish you had the Dalai Lama, Warren Buffet or your own personal Gandalf as a mentor or trusted advisor?  Me, too.  


I could have used a conversation with one of them recently. Ironically it was because I was asked to participate in a mentoring event for young professionals a few months back.  Mentoring continues to be a hot topic -- and for good reason. Mentees seek ideas, tips and secrets to success. Mentors seek to share words of wisdom and add value. 


As for me, I had to come up with a gem or two that I could share with emerging leaders.  What should I say?  I thought hard. That’s a lie.  I agonized.  I spent far too much time coming up with the required text.  


This prompted me to think about my own and other people’s mentoring experiences. What could we all learn as we seek to enhance our communication skills?  I canvassed colleagues of each generation (Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y) on their mentoring experiences and counsel.   


Here are some of my favorite sentiments:


From Mentors’ and Mentees’ Mouths: Five Lessons Worth Sharing 


1. Ask the Provocative Question


Former CEO Scott Suckow, received a cosmic 2 by 4 on channeling ego by a mentor who posed an excellent question about what Scott really wanted.  As the CEO of a non-profit that had a great deal of success and growth, he was dealing with a board leadership transition that was not going well.  He was sure all he needed to do was to help the other person understand just how wrong they were. He was asked the question, “Do you want to be right or keep your job?” and told that he might have to choose. 


Scott continues, “That simple question really pulled out the complexities of ego, and whether as CEO I would be able to put mine aside for the greater good. It was explained that if each of us give 50% and meet in the middle, that puts half the responsibility on the other person.  That’s half that we have no control over.  Rather, if I was committed to success, why not do everything I could to ensure it, even giving 100%?  This seems like such a simple observation, but I was rooted in my belief of being right, my ego didn’t allow me to see how much power I actually had.  To this day, when I find my ego keeping me from exploring new ways of doing things, I nudge myself along by asking this question “Do I want to be right or………..?” 


2. Tell A Story that Sticks


Former Chief of the HIV, STD and Hepatitis Branch of Public Health Services for the County of San Diego, Terry Cunningham, was advised to meet with a very effective local advocate early in his career.  It turned out to be an invaluable meeting.  Terry still remembers the story that was told about how the mentor recognized an opportunity and jumped on it, creating success for both his nonprofit organization and the business he approached for support.   The cause marketing that was created that day may well have been the first of its kind!  The lesson of the story stayed with Terry during his entire career.  “I learned the value of creating a win/win situation.  I still look for creative solutions because of this amazing mentor.”

3. Mentor For The Right Reason


Organizational Consultant Jack Baxter relates his experience being asked to be a mentor for performance improvement reasons by management. Ouch!  “On more than one occasion I was assigned to mentor what management described as an ‘up and coming star’, only to learn that the star had gone dark. The person had become disengaged and management wanted me to re-engage them. That doesn’t work….” 

What does work?  Jack shares that each party must have an interest in each other’s success -- and the goals are clearly outlined.  In his forty year career, Jack has recognized that a successful mentoring process has excellent communication written all over it.  Mentors should:

  • Ask “Why?” five times in the very thorough initial interaction

  • Clarify Key Performance Indicators so you can see progress

  • Ask questions 

  • Shut up and listen!


4. Give and Get, Just like the Communication Process Itself 


VP Miki Jo Resto experiences the act of mentoring as deeply satisfying and the relationship with a mentee as being an honor.  


“To have another feel safe to be vulnerable with me, to be able to say “this is what I don’t know” and trust that I’ll respond with compassion is a space that is rare. I love this rare space and only hope to help another reach the results they seek with more ease, and maybe a little more grace, than I was able.”  

As a mentee, she needed course correction and it paid off in ways she had not expected. 


“One of the truly wonderful and unexpected gifts has been when those mentors become friends, and as the mentor/friendship deepens those relationships turn into treasure. I experience so much joy when I get to share my wins and results with them”. 


5. It’s Okay to Be Nervous


Marketing consultant, Ilana Herring, provides suggestions for her generation as they seek mentors.  


“A mentor should be someone you both like and respect. It’s very possible you might be nervous to speak with them about becoming your mentor. That's ok. It’s probably a good thing. There should be a healthy sense of awe. They have something you don’t have (yet) and you should respect them for it.”



What did I end up with as my own counsel for the mentoring event?  Oh, if I only thought so hard about every word I uttered.  I finally decided on this:


Real power comes from understanding yourself and others’ motivation. Look for cues on what matters to them. Explain why you are doing things you are doing so they can connect to you, too.  The world desperately needs strategic thinkers. Be one!

Will it win a prize?  Nah.  It’s just another communication tip or two to add to your arsenal. 


Your Turn – Please share your own experience in the comment section below. 

…as a Mentee…what ideas, tips and secrets to success do/did you seek?

…as a Mentor…what words of wisdom do you seek to share?



{#/pub/images/SherriPetroUpdated.jpg}Written by Sherri Petro, President of VPI Strategies & California Miramar University (CMU) Professor Sherri is a professor, accomplished strategist, organizational development professional and executive coach.  She consulted for 13 years in the for-profit, non-profit, and government sectors after a 16 year corporate career.  She teaches the Strategy Capstone as well as Leadership, Change Management and Business Ethics courses in CMU’s MBA program. Her current passion is educating organizations on how to increase organizational sustainability by leveraging the talents and skills of all in multi-generational workplaces. Sherri offers remedies to misunderstandings that result from different belief structures and lack of coherent communication by creating understanding and making connections at the belief level not only at the behavioral level.


Do you have a question for Sherri?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in: 


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Developing An Emotionally Intelligent Organization

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Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: How to Develop Yourself & Your Team



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