Alexandra Pia Brovey, JD, LLM
Zen and the Art of Mentoring
Ten years ago I was asked to be a mentor. Although it was my first time, I felt I was ready. I had more than a decade of experience as a gift planner plus more than five years of experience as an attorney. My mentee had a few years of experience and clearly thought that I qualified.
Looking back now, I realize two things. First, I know significantly more now than I did ten years ago when I voluntarily accepted that role. Second, I’m not done learning.
Reflections of a Mentor
I was recently asked to be a mentor again. I reflected on what I could offer my mentee. A mentor often teaches by example. A great mentor often shares more than what either the mentee or the mentor might anticipate at the outset of the relationship.
As a mentor, I often reflect on how I can assist my mentees both with their stated goals and with their unstated ones. A common unstated but universal goal is, “How can I be (more) successful?” My mentee might not specifically ask me this in so many words. But I know that I can assist my mentees hone some key skills—I call them pillars—such as curiosity, patience, listening, and being in the moment.
Think back to your childhood. Your parents or an older sibling—or even an older neighbor or cousin—were likely your first mentors. (Your sibling might have been the “other” type of mentor—more about “inverse-mentors” below.) When you attended school, you likely had at least one great teacher who served as a mentor. And if you played a sport, some of your coaches may have served as mentors.
What’s the difference between a coach and a mentor? In my opinion, very little. Although coaches are historically associated with sports, both coaches and mentors provide advice backed by actions you can emulate. A great coach or mentor recognizes that the mentee is a reflection of the mentor, and may someday become a coach or a mentor. In this cycle, your experience translates into knowledge. As knowledge is shared and is put into practice, it transforms into wisdom.
When you enter the work force, you may be fortunate to have a mentor as your boss or senior colleague. Perhaps your workplace offers a formal program or you have the opportunity to participate in a mentorship program in your other activities. It’s possible to be matched with a great mentor. And sometimes you can choose a mentor.
Selecting a Mentor
You do not have to wait for a formal program to seek a mentor and be a mentee. I personally have sought—and found—my own mentors over two decades. Often I have a conversation and request permission from this person. I admit that occasionally I have chosen someone as a mentor and kept this relationship to myself. I call this being a “stealth mentee.”
Why do you seek a mentor? What tangible outcomes do you seek? To the extent you know your mentor, try to match the skills your mentor has with the outcomes you seek. Mentees typically identify one or two goals they hope to achieve.
One of my mentees wanted me to assist him with language for a letter that would introduce the subject of a gift in a will. Another mentee wanted to understand and be able to explain how charitable gift annuities work. Both of these goals were achievable with a few discussions and emails. With the first mentee, we drafted sample language to provide to the donor and reviewed possible questions and responses. For the second mentee, I prepared sample illustrations for a charitable gift annuity. We reviewed the materials and then practiced a simulated conversation with a prospective donor. In both cases, we didn’t simply talk about the outcomes, we took active steps to reinforce the inquiry and possible responses.
Being a Mentor
When you get to a point in your career where others ask you more or less regularly for advice, you assume the role of mentor. One of my colleagues recently shared that I was her mentor a few years ago. I preceded her in a key role and she called me for advice. I suppose in the recesses of my mind I realize that I was her mentor (with a lowercase “m”). Her comment sealed our relationship and my role as a Mentor.
Mentors often explore more than the hoped-for outcomes. Mentors model traits—which I call pillars. For example, as a mentor I encourage the pillar of curiosity by encouraging my mentees to ask “Why?” more often. I encourage the pillar of patience by showing my mentees the importance of focusing on the passion and learning to wait for the “when?” A mentor teaches best with actions, through leadership and by example.
Mentors can be helpful at any stage of your career.
In the early stage of your career, a mentor is invaluable. I was fortunate to have a few, in both my legal career and in my fundraising career. Seek a mentor who has a similar background—perhaps earned a similar degree or does the same type of work you are doing. Usually in this stage your mentors will be older than you. Your immediate supervisor could be your mentor. You might consider asking a colleague who has been at the job for a few years, whether within or outside of your organization.
In the middle stage of your career, a mentor can advise you on promotion possibilities, help you fill in any gaps in knowledge, and serve as a “mirror” to reflect what traits you are broadcasting to others. You might modify some of your behaviors or add a new skill. These mentors will likely be found outside of your organization. Some mentors may also become trusted friends.
Don’t assume you do not need a mentor later in your career. When do you plan to stop adding skills and learning? My response is “never”—so I may need to find a mentor to help me with emerging technology, understanding and applying new tax laws, or any number of things that I cannot foresee at this moment.
We don’t learn all we need to know from those who have great skills. We also learn from those who are not role models. Think back to those lessons you learned as a result of making a mistake. Those are now hard-wired into your mind and you are not likely to repeat them. Similarly, you can learn from others’ mistakes or poor judgment. One way is to be on the lookout for what I call “inverse-mentors.”
An inverse-mentor is the opposite of a great mentor. Instead of providing guidance, an inverse-mentor may lead you down the wrong path. Or an inverse-mentor may fail to help you when you need it, usually because of some misguided sense that your improvement detracts from their importance.
We don’t seek inverse-mentors, but you will likely not be able to avoid them. Perhaps an analogy is in order. Think about needing to get a vaccination. We don’t like them, there is a slight chance of infection or adverse reaction, and they sting (or worse). But we know they are a part of life, so we learn to accept them, deal with the short-term pain and look to the long-term benefits. So, too, should you look past the short-term “sting” of working with an inverse-mentor and seek the lessons that will bolster your confidence in the long-term.
Inverse-mentors Can Harm and Help You
In the early stages of your career, an inverse-mentor can be truly harmful to the point of even turning you off to a career. I hope this does not happen to you. But if you learn to recognize inverse-mentors and realize that their advice is useful—just not in the usual way, this is a helpful lesson. Weigh what an inverse-mentor tells you or does against your budding knowledge of best practices. This step is the start of wisdom, which grows over time as you become more experienced and work with additional mentors and inverse-mentors.
In the middle stages of your career, an inverse-mentor can be harmful if you seek to expand your knowledge and learn new skills, or if you are seeking help in asking for a promotion. An inverse-mentor can be helpful as you learn to distinguish good advice from bad advice. Some inverse-mentors are in high positions and hopefully you can find at least one redeeming value of working with this person.
In the late stages of your career, an inverse-mentor is more of an annoyance. Hopefully this person is not your direct supervisor or the leader in your service area. You have the knowledge and wisdom generally to distinguish good advice from bad advice. You can continue to learn from inverse-mentors as you have in the past, and otherwise focus on what you know works.
Lessons Learned from Inverse-mentors
Some classic inverse-mentor actions—or lack of actions—can be turned into lessons. Here are four examples:
- Inverse-mentors do not respond to emails in a timely manner, or at all. Good mentors recognize that common courtesy dictates a reply to an email within a reasonable amount of time. A lack of response is a sign—perhaps of a lack of organization or a lack of self-respect, both common traits of inverse-mentors.
- Inverse-mentors often take credit when things go well, and deny responsibility when things go wrong. Good mentors typically downplay their roles and are willing to share their mistakes so they and others can learn from them. Inverse-mentors do not admit to mistakes. But they make their fair share of them.
- Inverse-mentors love to talk about gifts more than actually soliciting them. Talk is cheap. Excuses run out and have an expiration date. Inspire me to raise money by your actions.
- Inverse-mentors feel they have the most knowledge in every area, and seldom like to admit that someone who reports to them has greater expertise. Good mentors recognize when the people they supervise have skills and abilities that collectively make the team—including the mentor—stronger.
Donors as Mentors
Until I wrote this article, I had not contemplated whether donors can be mentors. But good m entors continue to seek and find opportunities to gain more knowledge. Good mentors have the experience plus the confidence to be a mentor, as well as the courage to be a mentee. And although we don’t typically think of donors as mentors, they may in fact be our truest mentors, and we their mentees.
Nothing beats firsthand knowledge or feedback. Some donors are very forthright and tell us precisely what they want or need. We can apply what we learn from this subset of donors to donors in similar situations. Other donors provide less obvious but valuable feedback through their interactions over time, and their gifts. Feedback that we can use in future interactions is a form of mentoring. Fundraisers learn their best lessons directly from donor interactions and actual gift discussions.
A Look Ahead
Ten years from now I may be asked again to be a mentor. Will I give superior advice because I have another decade of experience? Probably. Will I still seek a mentor and be a mentee? I hope so. Although that mentor might be an award-winning author or even a national park ranger. Stay tuned!
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