Become the Mentor You Wish You Had3 Aug 2023
Mentors, both formal and informal, have had an enormous impact on my career. I came to project management after five years of working in Operations. Two of my early mentors – a more experienced fellow officemate and my first boss – helped me acclimate to my new role, and they continue to be a source of wise counsel, guidance, and friendship to this day.
As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve tried to pay that forward by serving as a mentor myself. In fact, I recently signed up for my local PMI chapter’s mentorship program and met with my mentee just the other day. Along the way, I’ve also encountered many other people at PMI who have both been mentored and who now serve as a mentor to others.
I had the opportunity to sit down with several PMI leaders to discuss the value of mentorship and the role it’s played in their careers, as well as the impact mentorship can have on young professionals entering the workforce today.
Karla Eidem: As someone who has been mentored in the past and often looks back at how it positively impacted my career trajectory, tell me… what role have mentors played in your career? Did you have a mentor when you started in the profession? How did it help you?
Lenka Pincot: I’ve always sought out mentors. Early in my career they were mostly informal mentors, usually more senior colleagues. Later, however, I adopted a more systematic approach – seeking out mentors who could help me understand how to tailor my job to contribute to strategy. Such mentoring helped me frame expectations of my role in a broader context. It was also extremely valuable in allowing me to resolve conflicts and handle difficult conversations. A few years back, I signed up for a mentoring program designed for female leaders. After a year of being mentored, I decided to become a mentor myself and now mentor two or three professionals on a yearly basis. And I still find mentoring helpful. It’s a way to learn faster and exchange experiences with someone facing similar challenges. It’s also helped me take a step back before making important decisions and identify solutions with an open mindset.
Olivier Lazar: I quite agree, Lenka. A good mentor can provide external perspective that allows you to see things in a new light and that helps create needed distance from your own point of view. That’s why mentors have played a determining role in my personal evolution throughout my career. Several people have served as mentors to me – teachers, seasoned PMI volunteers, managers and leaders, business partners, as well as colleagues and team members. There is always something to learn by listening and observing others, including people who are more junior than yourself. Mentorship is a dialogue. Unlike coaching, which is more of a one-way process, mentorship benefits both parties. Depending on the situation and context, you can alternatively switch from being a mentor to being a mentee and vice-versa. Mentoring has given me the benefit not only of knowledge but a short cut into how to use this knowledge to make connections and understand the inner mechanisms of organizations and situations. It’s allowed me to raise my standards and aim higher. One doesn’t learn alone. Never.
Karla: That’s truly inspiring, Olivier. Let’s now talk a little more about why mentorship is so important in the project management field. Why should young project professionals seek out a mentor?
Lenka: I love the idea of a mentor being an ally. It’s true that mentors act as a guide, but they can also play a confidante role throughout one's professional journey, contributing significantly to building successful careers in project management. Project management is an exciting profession and project professionals are involved in decision-making daily. They’re dealing with a diverse group of stakeholders and experts – and they must learn from their experiences to be prepared for whatever comes next. However, being a project professional can also be very stressful because it involves dealing with risks and unexpected situations. Having a mentor – an ally – is indeed very useful. Mentors provide a sounding board. They can share their experiences in similar situations. And they can help young project professionals explore solutions they might not think about otherwise.
Olivier: When you think about it, project management is a discipline of decision making. That decision-making is based not only on tools and techniques, but on your ability to understand context and to develop a broader vison of what’s at stake on your project beyond the simple scope statement or project charter. Mentors can help you develop this larger perspective by helping you understand the connections between the components of your business and the strategic environment. It’s essential to develop this decision-making ability. Without it, all tools, techniques, and processes are pointless. As one of my mentors used to say, “A fool with a tool is still a fool, and sometimes even more dangerous.” A mentor can give you the keys to decode an environment and understand how to develop the right path to success. A mentor is an accelerator, a challenger, a motivator.
Karla: What qualities should a young professional look for in a potential mentor? What should the mentor look for in a mentee?
Lenka: A good mentor is a good listener and communicator. He or she has empathy and is candid. The mentor’s role is not to give the mentee a direction to follow. Rather, it is to share their thoughts and experience and then leave it to the mentee to decide next steps. As such, mentors must be able to share their thoughts in a constructive way and encourage the mentee to consider various angles and to test and try different ways of approaching a challenge. On the other hand, mentees should approach the mentoring session with an open mind and use every minute with their mentors to learn and be inspired. Mentees should also think upfront about what they want to achieve from the mentoring, what career challenge they want to address or what progress they’d like to accomplish. They can then enter the mentoring session with a firm focus. My advice to mentees would be to say openly what you’re looking for and to give your mentor space to prepare their stories and advice to make the sessions valuable.
Olivier: A mentor/mentee relationship should be based on trust. As in any other relationship, trust is the essential component that grows over time and with experience. A mentee needs to trust that the mentor is not biased or self-interested. Mentorship is a chosen relationship that establishes itself organically. It’s very different from coaching in that it’s not the result of a transaction, it’s not limited in time, and it’s aimed at the overall progress, growth, and development of the mentee. The mentor must be supportive of the mentee’s development, but the mentee, in turn, must be committed to his or her own development and be ready to accept feedback and to take action.
Karla: You both have talked about the importance of trust and mutual respect in a mentorship relationship. What else have you learned about mentorship in your years in the project management field? What makes for a good mentor/mentee relationship? What are some pitfalls to avoid?
Olivier: It’s never too late to be mentored, and it’s never too early to mentor. Knowledge and progress are based on sharing, and we don’t grow without nurturing others and being nurtured by them. That’s how information is transformed into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. This sharing is the key success factor, along with trust. Pitfalls to avoid? One pitfall, from the mentor’s perspective, is doing things in lieu of your mentee. The mentee needs to take responsibility for his or her own development and to be held accountable. The reverse is true for the mentee – don’t expect your mentor to do the job for you. That’s your role.
Lenka: I agree, Olivier. The role of the mentor is not to solve the mentee’s challenges, to train them, or to provide coaching. It’s to share their insights and experience and provide inspiration to the mentee on how they can approach challenges. On the other hand, the mentee’s role is not to follow every piece of advice received from the mentor. As we’ve noted, any good relationship is based on trust and respect. Both mentor and mentee should feel comfortable discussing the topics raised. They should keep an open mindset and show respect for each other’s experiences and stories. It’s often helpful spending time early in the relationship on clarifying the expectations of both the mentor and mentee.
Karla: How has mentoring affected you as a person and as a professional?
Lenka: I like mentoring and being mentored. It’s always an enriching experience. In my current career stage, I try to select my mentors carefully. For instance, my current mentor is a world-renowned innovation expert. So, any discussion with him is highly engaging and inspiring. At the same time, I like to give back and mentor young female professionals to help them advance their careers. I’m also part of the mentoring program that supports displaced female Ukrainian leaders. Giving back is something that simply makes so much sense to me, and mentoring is such a great way to give back. It benefits society by creating greater leadership diversity, enhancing the professional development of individual project professionals, and encouraging life-long education.
Olivier: It always helps to listen actively. And by “actively,” I mean being open to changing your mind, being open to hearing that you might be wrong and accepting that. I’ve learned that there’s always something more to learn, and we can always improve what we do and how we do it. Mentorship is an open door to continuous improvement and questioning. That’s how you grow. All through your life.
Karla: Well said, Olivier. Thank you both, for your insights and inspiring words. I’m sure they will encourage many of our colleagues to seek out mentors and, ultimately, to serve as mentors themselves.