Everyone, and I really mean everyone, can help someone else.
Last week, I spoke to 150 engineers, mostly women, who were just starting their working careers. If I had to guess, I would say that their average age was 21 or 22 years old.
I told them that they have a responsibility to be mentors to the generation behind them, which was a surprising idea to most of them. I could see confusion fleeting across their faces: "How can I be a mentor, when I have just started working?" Clearly, to them, a mentor was someone who had worked for a long time and had a lot of experience. "You are a role model to teenagers, who are about to make important decisions about their studies," I explained. "You can show them where studying engineering and math can take you.
After their reaction, I started thinking more about mentoring and how I believe it's evolving. Coincidentally, I got an email this week from a Gen-Y colleague who wrote: "It's important to have your hand behind you, pulling the next person up." I love the visual of this comment.
When you've worked as long as I have, mentoring the next generation happens organically. In your day-to-day job, you meet people who ask for advice and naturally, we all like to help. We make time to give guidance to folks who want to learn because we remember the folks who had helped us during our early work life.
But, I have come to realize that my traditional view of mentoring has changed. I now don't think you need to earn your mentor-stripes through years of experience. Wherever you are in your journey, I think you have something to share that is useful to someone. To be honest, I'm in a hurry; I want mentors of all ages working to help people as soon as they can. I want young people to know that they can already have an impact without having worked for 20 years. Sure, their experience is different than mine. They know, or don't know, very different things than I do. It's not less valuable; it's just different. And here's the important point: it will be the right guidance for someone -- someone who needs a hand to pull him or her up.
My changing view of mentorship is already seeping into my mentoring relationships. Each week, I usually have two to three discussions with folks wearing my "mentor" hat. I like these conversations; I get a lot out of them. It's interesting to hear what's on folks' minds and (hopefully) to be able to help. What is different than before is that now I always close with: "Whom have you helped this week?" I ask this question because the folks who come to me for help are often pretty unhappy with something that is happening to them right this minute. They are absorbed by it, and often, understandably, have lost perspective. If I were to say, "your problem is not so urgent," or "you are not keeping this issue in perspective," my response would -- rightfully -- be perceived as dismissive and unhelpful. But when I ask you to focus on helping someone else, it gives you a little break from your own problems, and this usually gives you the space and perspective that help you tackle your own issues. Think of it this way: the hand you extend to someone else can also be the hand that helps you. How cool is this?