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I was part of a panel discussion at last month’s Public Relations Society of America International Conference.  I was joined by some of my Counselors Academy colleagues…we each presented two 5-minute “ignite-style” talks on a variety of topics on the theme “Keys to Agency Management.”  I took on two topics: growing your business and mentoring.  Here’s what I had to say, would welcome your comments.

I have always been a big proponent of the pay-it-forward concept.  There is plenty to be gained personally from helping someone out.  It makes you feel good, helps a friend (or stranger) when they need it and if you believe in karma (or any other mystical force), what goes around comes around.

The residual benefits of paying it forward can often be felt in the business world, too.  I think it is a safe bet that all of us had a mentor at one time.  Heck some of you may still have a mentor, I know I do.  My needs may be different than they were when I first started out in my career, but having someone to turn to to ask advice, get some coaching on a difficult situation or to bounce an idea off of is invaluable.

And a mentor doesn’t necessary have to mean someone with more experience than you.  I have a couple folks younger than me that I go to with challenges that I think they may be more experienced with and can offer a different perspective than a contemporary or more senior colleague. And they are so flattered to be asked.

That’s what mentors give: a different perspective. And that’s why everyone needs a mentor. And you may need different mentors at different times during your career and your agency’s growth.  Perhaps when you are starting your business, your mentor is another agency owner. Maybe you turn to someone who has the knowledge and experience on how to run or scale a business, or how to take products to market.

They may teach you to read a cash flow statement, or how to decide whether to incorporate and what kind of corporation to form. They can also help you hire and fire.  And the advice is usually free – maybe the cost of a cup of coffee or good glass of wine.

Sometimes a mentor gives you permission to fail and is there to discuss why.  Or maybe you just need a shoulder to cry on during tough times. Or to laugh with.  Or to go shopping with.

So what’s it take to be a good mentor?  I can point to four very important traits that I believe make a strong mentor.  I hope to demonstrate these if I am the mentor and certainly what I expect when I am the mentee.

  • Be open-minded. We all come to the table with our own thoughts, value systems, prejudices.  But if the purpose of mentoring is to inform and transform them, both sides of the mentoring equation need to keep their minds open to new ways of thinking.  It’s not easy – after all what we might be hoping for is someone to agree with us.  But a real mentor/mentee relationship should challenge the status quo.
  • Be a good listener.  When you are a good listener, you are fully engaged with the other person.  We toss the word “engage” around a lot these days, when in fact, most often we are very disengaged when we are in a face-to-face situation.  Cell phones, text messages, Facebook status updates may be keep us connected, but nothing beats a good one-on-one conversation.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions.  Your mentee has come to you and expects to work through something.  The only way that’s going to happen is to dig a little deeper into the subject. It may be uncomfortable for both of you, but think of what can occur when you let it happen.
  • And if you’re going to ask tough questions, you are going to expect total honesty.  Remember, you have chosen the mentor because of something they can offer to you.  If you aren’t willing to open up and share the stuff, perhaps it is time for a new mentor.

Why is mentoring so important?  We live in a competitive business climate and the need for continuous education has never been more important.  And as I mentioned before, we have plenty of ways to stay connected, but nothing can replace the impact of a face-to-face conversation. Because mentorship combines learning with connections, it can make a positive impact on any organization.

Organizations that create a culture of mentorship see some amazing business results as well.  They report increased retention rates (and who doesn’t want to retain good employees?), improved morale, increased commitment to the business and job satisfaction.

Other positives?  More employees wanting to pursue a leadership track, reports of less stressed and more cohesive teams.  Almost always you’ll find a new way to do something, especially when your team knows you support their ideas.

In creating a mentoring culture, it must be clear that mentoring is a top down/bottom up activity and is supported across the entire organization.   It’s not enough to simply say we are starting a mentoring program.  You have to show a commitment to the process, provide ample time and space for it to be successful and that you are willing to do what it takes to make it work.

So what steps do you take to create that culture?  Be sure you have the buy-in from all involved.  Management, team members, admin staff, etc.  This is not an “if you build it they will come” deal, you’ve really got to live it for the team to get it.

Be open to the process and know that what the culture looks like at the beginning of the effort will look nothing like it as it takes shape.  And that is perfectly ok. Just like mentoring transforms a person, it will transform the culture as well.

Don’t make the process so overwhelming that no one wants to play.  Keep it simple and let it evolve over time.  Have some achievable goals in mind, be clear about the expectations and your support of the effort and that you are creating a safe environment for mentoring to occur.

Successful mentoring takes time.  Not only because it may be a cultural shift, but you are asking your team to step outside of their comfort zone.  Give them a client project and a billable hours goal and they know what to do. Ask them to spend an hour a week just chatting with a colleague and that gets more complicated.

And remember to keep yourself in the process as well.  Just because you are leading and creating the culture doesn’t mean you can’t be an active participant.  And if you need a mentor, I’m always up for coffee….or that good glass of wine.


Abbie S. Fink
Abbie S. Fink
Vice President/General Manager Abbie has been doing public relations her whole life…from organizing a picket line in 6th grade to organizing client communications today. She’s passionate about a lot of things, you’ll see. Check out Abbie's full bio

1 Comment

  1. Ethan G. May says:

    The book is written in Maxwell’s readable, conversational style. It deals with mentoring in the workplace, so it was not quite what I was looking for, although I gained some helpful insights. It would be a great book for a business setting.

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