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3 ways to power up mentorship to move your career forward

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3 ways to power up mentorship to move your career forward

By L. Michelle Smith, M.S. ACC · June 24, 2021
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"Find the trees, move around the stumps." These wise words stuck with me from one of my first mentors. I'm not even certain that I knew to call her that, but looking back on that time, I would. She was amazing: she held the reins on the No. 1 newscast in the seventh-largest media market. I was incredibly fortunate to start my journey as a television news writer as an intern who just happened to take some initiative and share with her some of my first writings for broadcast news on the fly.

You see, there were 13 interns that summer. That's one more than there were working reporters most days. If I was slick enough, I could hide when they were assigning interns and somehow wind up staying in the newsroom instead of venturing out into the field. I never wanted to be a television news reporter. I was a very proud writer, and I wanted to find all the ways that I might leverage my writing skills to influence the news business. So staying in the newsroom was my strategy, and it would ultimately land me in my mentor's realm.

I think most people get mentorship all wrong. They believe that there's a power dynamic that's core to the paradigm, that it's a one-way street, and that it's siloed. Before I studied the power of mentorship over the course of my 25+-year career, I began learning some of the most important aspects of the arrangement—and it started the summer before my senior year in college at that TV station.

Lesson 1: The mentee should bring as much value to the relationship as the mentor 

Providing value to your mentor might be the number one way to obtain a mentor without having to ask.

Through the years, this has been one of the challenges that I hear from professionals at the beginning and middle of their careers. They just don't believe that they have access to mentors, or don't know where to begin to get one. 

Back in the newsroom at the ripe age of 19, I would learn this lesson quickly. Janet, the producer who would become my mentor, was a busy woman. I knew then that asking her for help would be a little assuming and very inconvenient for her. I knew I needed to offer something in return.

I decided I would pull news stories from the Associated Press wire service and practice rewriting and shortening them for TV news. I worked quietly in an abandoned workspace, so no one was the wiser that I'd skipped out on the field work with the reporters. When I had about 30 seconds of copy, I would send Janet an email to ask her if, when she was finished working on the show, she would take a look at my writing and critique it. Then, I would begin on another news story. 

Much to my surprise, within minutes, I heard the ding of the email notification. It was Janet, and I will never forget these words that are now etched into my memory forever: "Thank you. In fact, this is so good, I will use it in the 5 o'clock show."

I froze. Did she really just say she would use my copy—the intern's writing—for these veteran anchors to read, live, on the air? I couldn't believe it. So I did it again. I wrote up a news story and sent it to her for review. Then it happened again. "I'm going to use this too." She found value in my work output and put it in play immediately. After gathering myself, I just had to call my parents to tell them that the news anchor that they so admired would be reading my words on the evening news. 

I'm convinced that this is what led to that one-on-one in her office near the end of my internship when she shared her wise words. Boom! I had a mentor—and I didn't even have to ask for one.

Lesson 2: Mentorship is at its richest when it's linear and extracts the power dynamic

If Janet had been distracted by my youth and inexperience, she never would have seen the value in my work. Instead, she treated me as a professional, even before I was one. This is a lesson that I learned later in my career as well: the best mentors I had extracted the power dynamic from our relationship, and learning from their example, I also treated my mentees with the same respect. I always gained more from the relationship that way. 

Since then, I've taken that concept to the extreme with the personal board of directors model that I share with my clients. Have you ever considered that there's something to gain by allowing a peer to mentor you? How about someone even more junior than you, where they're the mentor, and you're the mentee? In this new, fractured digital economy, people with less experience in one area may well have more experience than you in another. 

I never will forget the time when a very high-ranking officer called my cell out of the blue, excited because he was about to explain the concept of Black Twitter to his CEO. This officer was Black, but he was by no means a digital native. As it turned out, our mentoring relationship was extremely rich because, although he was busy pouring into me, I was also adding value. I was mentoring him, and in a moment where it counted most, he could explain a culturally nuanced concept in social media that he gleaned from our conversations. It was a proud moment for him as well as for me. 

Whether you're the mentor or the mentee, your role isn't only to consume. Mentorship is always on and 360 degrees in nature when it's done correctly.

Lesson 3: Mentorship is most powerful when it's diversified

In the most recent edition of my book, No Thanks: 7 Ways to Say I'll Just Include Myself, The Remix, I share a preview of some research that I did about Black women's views of their time in corporate America aspiring for executive leadership roles. One of the findings surprises people: of the 100 professional women surveyed, most of them pointed to white men as being the most supportive in their efforts to move up. While white men also appeared on the list of people who were a hindrance (but to a lesser degree), it underscored something that I believe we should all take note of: if your mentors and sponsors all look like you, think like you, work like you, and lead like you, you are likely missing out on an opportunity. 

The reality is that you will enrich your career and your business if you lean out in order to lean in to your goals. Lean out of your immediate circle. Lean out of your current company. Lean out of your current industry to find mentors who can share with you the things that you didn't know that you didn't know. They should be more senior than you, equal to you, and even more junior than you. And as you're taking in the good information, be sure to offer value. While it shouldn't be seen as transactional, your mentoring relationships should definitely be symbiotic.

How will you take another look at your approach to mentorship to propel your career forward?

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L. Michelle Smith, M.S. ACC picture

L. Michelle Smith, M.S. ACC

L. Michelle Smith is the CEO/founder of no silos communications llc, a media and consulting company that blends leadership development and strategic communications to develop high-performing, women executive leaders. She also advises the Fortune 500 companies those women aspire to lead.

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