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Mentorship is ‘priceless’ in career development, chief transformation officer says

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With a title like chief transformation officer, Janice Burns spends her days thinking about change. 

In her nearly four years at learning platform Degreed, she has served as chief career experience officer and chief people officer before taking on her current role last year. Prior to that, she spent 28 years at Mastercard in various roles, including chief learning officer and chief diversity officer. 

Her own transformation from public school teacher to top HR executive, with a period as a marketer, was guided by various mentors.

“Mentors are so important, because they play a role in people’s careers, in helping to shape their careers. They’re usually the people, if you have a good mentor, who you remember throughout your career,” Burns told HR Dive.

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

HR DIVE: What role have mentors played in your life? 

JANICE BURNS: In almost all of my jobs and definitely in each of my major career transitions, I’ve had a mentor who I have leveraged to help me think through the decisions. These are mentors who understand both my strengths and my developmental needs, mentors who usually understand me not just on a professional level, but to some degree on a personal level, and who I could talk to about what my passions were and what my challenges were in a job and ask for their advice and counsel. 

It’s not that you’re looking for a mentor to tell you what to do but to really offer you a perspective. You can take that perspective and decide: Is that something that applies to me in my situation, or is it just nice information that I don’t need to use? 

Oftentimes, people think a mentor is supposed to fix them or fix their problem, and that’s not it. You need to be clear when you’re deciding to be a mentor if the person who’s asking for a mentor needs a mentor or if they need an intervention, because they are two different things.

If they’re having a performance issue and they want someone to help fix their performance issue, that’s an intervention. That’s a short-term type of solution. A mentor is going to help someone over a period of time really move towards a goal, usually a career goal, and help them to navigate those waters of how to get there.

How did you find the mentors who have helped you?

In some cases, the mentors found me, and in other cases, I found the mentors. Early in my career, the mentors found me; they saw something in me that they thought was unique and needed to be developed, and they kind of adopted me as their mentee. Part of that is because I joined a management training program, and that was the nature of that process. But even after I got out of the management training program, I usually had an executive who saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see myself, and they took me under their wing. 

As I got more towards the middle of my career, I actively decided to seek out mentors. Sometimes I’d look for someone whose leadership style I admired, and I really wanted to connect with them to help me to develop my own leadership skills. Sometimes I connected with a mentor because I was thinking about making a transition, and that person was already in that field. Sometimes it was about going outside of the organization.

I think you should have a mentor who is in talent acquisition or is an executive recruiter, because they know what skill sets and experiences people are looking for. They know what behaviors they expect people to demonstrate in a particular role. They can be extremely helpful to you. I always try to have mentors internally and externally. Those mentors stay with me for years; it’s not a short-term type of relationship.

What advice would you give to someone looking to find their own mentor?

If it’s someone inside of the company who you think you want to be your mentor, you need to do some research. You can go on LinkedIn and understand what their background is. Ask other people in the company what they’re like as a leader if they’re in a leadership position, what they’re like as a professional and how open they are to working with people or mentoring people. You can gauge if this is the type of person you want to have a relationship with or just observe from afar, because everyone isn’t built to be a mentor. 

Then, you need to have a conversation with that person and formally ask them to mentor you. Tell them why you want them to mentor you and what you hope to achieve from the mentorship relationship and how much time you would like to spend with them. You really do have to have rapport with the person, because the person has to feel comfortable sometimes telling you things that you may not want to hear. And you have to feel comfortable knowing that if you’re hearing something that stings a little bit, that it’s coming from a place of wanting you to be better. 

Do you have any advice for people who might feel uncomfortable asking someone to be their mentor? 

A lot of people don’t want to feel like they’re putting someone out. I don’t know any other way of doing it except being honest and having the conversation. It takes a little bit of courage to do it. You need to be very clear about what your objectives are, what you’re looking to get out of it and how much time you want to spend with the person. 

If you’re saying I want to spend an hour with you every week, that’s probably a little bit too much. If you want to have a monthly check-in or a quarterly check-in, that’s a reasonable amount of time to expect someone to give to you. Be prepared when you go to meet with the mentor, so you’re not wasting their time. 

What do you see as the value in mentorship?

I think the value is when you’re trying to learn or grow. Part of the learning process is acquiring knowledge. You can do that by yourself; you don’t necessarily need someone else to help you acquire knowledge. 

But part of the learning process is then taking that knowledge and applying it through practice. If you really want to develop a skill or change a behavior, you need to get perspective from people who have traveled along a similar path. That’s where that mentorship relationship becomes really invaluable. The mentor can provide you with perspective. The mentor can give you advice about the pitfalls that you may experience along the way and how to handle those pitfalls. They can give you advice on opportunities that you can take advantage of that you may not be able to see. 

They can connect you to other people who can also help guide you along that journey. It is rounding out that learning experience by having a relationship with someone who can give you perspectives and share their experiences with you to help you to continue to grow and develop.

If you’re considering asking someone to be a mentor, be very thoughtful about it. I think it is one of the best things you can do for your career. But you need to go into it prepared and be willing to have someone say it no. 

If you’re considering being a mentor, it is probably one of the most rewarding things that you can do because you can really help to shape the future of someone else’s life. It’s about not only the advice you give, but how you make people feel. Mentors can help people feel more confident in themselves and more capable about achieving a goal. That’s priceless.

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