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On Mentorship

Today was my mentor’s last day.

 

I’m not sure that she knew she was my mentor, but she was.

In fact, I told her on my first day here. Right after the “this-is-what-we-expect-from-you” conversation, and right before “okay-get-to-work,” she asked what I needed from her. I said I needed a mentor and to be frequently reassured that I’m doing a good job.

She said “Okay”, which I understood as “Sure, I’ll be your mentor.”

I didn’t really need an admission. Mentorship rarely comes from a simple statement of the fact. It’s built on respect ← hard to earn and easy to lose.

Maybe she didn’t say it flat out because it wouldn’t have solidified anything. Saying “Sure, I’ll be your mentor” doesn’t make you someone else’s mentor. They have to look up to you, and you have to give them something to look up to. Fortunately, she did, and in case you were wondering what that was:

1. She knew (almost) everything.

When I started as an SEO I didn’t know what the <a> tag was (to save you from Googling, it’s a link). The bar to impress me wasn’t exactly high, but as an obsessive workaholic, that quickly changed. For every question I had, she had an answer, and on the rare occasion when it was “I don’t know”, it was quickly followed up by “I’ll find out and get back to you.” ← which she did.

If you’re going to teach somebody something, you better know what you’re talking about. When you don’t, find out. Want to lose your protégé’s respect? Make something up or say you’ll get back to them — then don’t.

2. She highlighted the good and minimized the bad.

Let me let you in on a little secret:  When I started in SEO, I sucked. It slowly got better until I was confident in my ability to make things rank, then I got bored, so I switched teams. Now I’m new to the SEM team and guess what? I suck again. That’s just how it goes. When you’re new, you suck, and that’s okay. Assuming you don’t give up, eventually you’ll stop sucking and probably even become good.

But when you suck, it sucks. You know you suck, and the last thing you need is to be reminded of how much you suck. She never pointed out when I sucked. When I was at a 95% suck level, she would dig deep and point out the 5%, which gave me the confidence I needed to know that someday I would be good at this.

3. She understood my goals.

People get into digital marketing for different reasons. For some, it’s the lifestyle. Others enjoy the combination of data mining and calculated risk. She never assumed my goals were the same as her goals, nor did she project her goals onto me.

4. She led from the front.

Not once was I expected to do something she hadn’t done before. When it came to exploring new software or testing new techniques, she always led the way.

 


 

The downside to having a great mentor is that it genuinely hurts when they leave. Your gut reaction is typically to throw up a stack of papers, stream profanities, and close it out with a round of unintentionally narcissistic statements.

 

“Sweet. We had a great thing, then you HAD to leave.”

“Awesome. Looking forward to the increased workload while we search for a suitable replacement.”

“Well, it’s time to start looking I guess.”

Then two minutes pass and you realize none of that matters. They’re growing and it would be selfish to hold them back.

 


 

I think the only feeling worse than having a mentor leave is the feeling of knowing that other people have emotionally checked out. The first is a punch to the face, while the latter is an endless succession of rainy days. At first, you think you’d rather take the rain. Rain doesn’t hurt. Rain is a minor annoyance, and you are mentally strong. Then the compound effect of every single day starts to dig in, and you start thinking you may have overestimated your intellectual prowess. Within a few months, you’d gladly take any number of punches straight to the face if people would just start showing up and being there.

What people don’t realize is how unfair checking out is to new team members. If you came into the environment that you are providing for newbies, would it be the same one that your mentors provided for you? Would it be worse? Would it be better?

I know a lot of people would say either:

  1. I’m not in a management position, so that’s not my problem. OR
  2. I’m nobody’s mentor.

To which I would say:

  1. Not all managers are mentors, and not all mentors and managers. AND
  2. That’s only true because it’s self-fulfilling.

You don’t know who looks up to you, and you don’t know if or when you’ll lose that. All you need to know is that it’s important to appreciate the mentors that you have while you have them, and don’t spend so much time reminiscing on the past that you forget to set the tone for the future.

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