“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

4 Lessons Learned from Being a Mentor

4 Lessons Learned from Being a Mentor

Hillary Kirtland


It’s an age-old adage: the best way to learn something is to teach it. In the same way, the most effective method of developing yourself—mentoring someone else.

I first discovered my love of mentorship as a martial arts coach. At first, I did it because it was expected of me. For years after, I did it because it gave me such a sense of pride and accomplishment to enable another person’s success. Passing down everything I had learned over my years of dedicated practice was an incredible challenge and unparalleled joy when I saw the impact I had. Since then, I have served as a tutor, peer mentor, teaching assistant, alumni mentor and trainer. Over time I discovered being a good mentor looked different than I originally anticipated.

Here’s what being a mentor taught me:

1. “No” is not a dirty word

...And you are allowed to say it. Time is the most valuable thing you can give to a mentee, and no matter how hard you try, you cannot pour from an empty cup. I tried to do this while balancing grad school, internships and pro-bono consulting work, and trust me, you will end up doing your potential mentee a disservice if you cannot dedicate the time and brain power to a meaningful mentoring relationship. Now that I’m no longer balancing school along with everything else, I can fill the time school used to occupy with the more fulfilling mentorship activities I love (like providing guidance to other aspiring consultants from my alma mater). Depending on timing, workload and compatibility, not every relationship—no matter how much you want it to—will make sense to take on.

2. Your advice can make a difference

...Or it can waste everyone’s time. Don’t just throw around all of the typical “dress appropriately,” “be professional” or “work hard” kind of advice. This is exactly the reason I’ve seen many well-intentioned, mentorship programs fizzle out. People invested in asking for your advice are already on the right path; they’re self-starters who already have the basics down. Help them with the fundamentals, if they truly need it, but don’t dwell on them. Instead, take the time to cultivate the kind of relationship where you can share specific and relevant insights that will impact that mentee’s future. This strategy is something I’ve carried into my career to better myself as a consultant, and even into my personal life to be a better friend and significant other.

3. Create a safe space for failure

...Theirs and yours. We should not fear failure, but rather embrace it. Find ways to facilitate opportunities for your mentees so they can really get their hands dirty. Be there to catch them and offer constructive feedback when they fall. This was abundantly clear to me when coaching martial arts, but is just as (if not more) applicable now. As a mentor, you should not be afraid to share your failures. Let your mentees learn from their own mistakes and from yours. It makes you relatable and the advice more real. Along those lines, also try to get outside your comfort zone with your mentorship style. Build a relationship where you can trust your mentee will let you know what is and isn’t working for them, and go from there. Mentoring should never be just a one-way street.

4. You win when your mentee wins.

In my first full-time role after college, I learned that the more success your mentee has, the better you look as well. Tasked to take the newest interns in our department under my wing, I was diligent in giving them every opportunity I could. I started to find that I was congratulated when they were congratulated, and celebrated when they were celebrated. While I never took credit for any of their work, my efforts to guide them didn’t go unnoticed. That group of interns taught me people want to work with people who are catalysts of success. My leads at that organization taught me people want to hire people who can bring out the best in others. I’ve also come to find that, down the road, when those you helped (way back when) are in a position to one day help you, you can bet they’ll jump at the chance. Best of all, those mentees will keep the culture of meaningful mentorship alive and pay it forward in the future.

We amplify our own success by facilitating the success of others. But this responsibility should not be taken lightly. Be deliberate in who you choose to dedicate your time to, because you won’t have time for everyone. Make sure you aren’t promising what you can’t give. Take the time to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships so you can share the right insights that will make a true difference. Share your own missteps with your mentee, and allow them to make their own. Failure is the path to progress, and we can’t succeed without it. And when your mentee does inevitably succeed, celebrate them with everything you’ve got. Give yourself that nice little pat on the back, but make sure you (and those around you) recognize your mentee’s success as well. We live long lives in a small world, and it never hurts to lend a helping hand.

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Hillary works as a Senior Strategy Consultant at IBM. She found her passion for her new job in the two years she took off work to pursue a full-time, Global MBA degree at George Washington University in Washington DC. She is driven by her constant curiosity and her truest love is for travel and adventure. Outside work you can find her playing in two of the local DC kickball leagues, taking Jiu Jitsu, boxing, and yoga classes at her gym, reading a book, or binge watching a new show (Currently obsessing over Outlander, because Jamie). 

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