by Mentoring Consultant Donna Herdsman
I have come to recognise that there are people who have been there throughout my life. Some people have become my friends over time, others I see occasionally at social get-togethers, but no matter what, I know we are there for each other now. These friends have always wanted me to be happy, and many have encouraged me to share and live my dreams. In essence, they have all acted as mentors to me.
Mentoring begins early in life
My parents and sisters have always loved me for who I am which, to some degree, made me feel that no matter what I did I could never really lose. But as I grew I recognised that I also needed to work out for myself what I wanted my life to look like.
I remember when a careers service came to visit my secondary school. They suggested I became a secretary, but I knew that career path wasn’t the right one for me. Luckily, a supportive geography teacher told me I could be anything I wanted to be. He asked if I had thought of doing a degree, but the thought scared me. What if I failed? I’d not only be letting myself down but my family and my community too. But, having done a degree himself, my teacher said he knew that it was well within my capabilities.
His belief in me gave me the inner strength to step into the unknown. I moved to London and completed a business studies degree which has formed the basis of not only my professional career, but also some of the wonderful experiences I’ve had to date, such as working in South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s government.
Contributing to society
I am pleased to say that mentoring is an integral part of my life, helping me to contribute – albeit in a small way – to society as a whole. Winning the First Woman Mentor of the Year Award a couple of years ago remains one of my much-loved achievements.
Here are some things I’ve learnt as both a mentor and mentee:
As a mentee
• There are elements in the journey of my life where I’ve needed to make a decision. No important decision is black or white. I don’t have perfect foresight. My mentors have helped me to consider the pros and cons of any situation. Mentors help me to give myself permission to think about what is important to and for me.
• I think a lot of us have that little voice in our heads with a loud amplifier reminding us about all the things you’re not good at. Some might call it imposter syndrome. It’s important not to be paralysed by the past but to think about how you can make a better future. My mentors create a safe haven for me to do this.
• Things do not always go as well as you wish and the empathy and understanding of my mentors has meant that I have been able to learn from such situations, forgive myself and eventually move on. My mentors have helped me to understand approaches for navigating difficult situations, like office politics and not letting the impact of unconscious, or otherwise, bias shape who I become. Sounds small but this is significant beyond measure.
• If you were to ask me about the key difference mentors have made to my life, I would say it’s learning to be kinder by setting aside the hostility that I have faced and not letting that define me. I’ve been told to “go back home”, that I won’t ever succeed because of the colour of my skin and/or my gender, and that I don’t fit in and far more besides. Yet I continue to live and breathe – whilst I have breath, I have hope!
I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of my mentors. They have shared their approaches with me in their professional and personal lives. My mentors have enriched the tapestry of my life for which I sincerely am humble for.
As a mentor
• As a mentor, I have had to learn to really listen to my mentee and support them to do what’s best for them. Being a mentor is about supporting your mentee and providing a listening ear to help them find a way forward to problems and challenges, while not letting your own experiences cloud your advice or judgement.
• I am very inquisitive and love to ask questions – I am sure that is linked to my audit training. I have come to realise that some people think I am challenging their expertise, but this is not so. I want to find the ‘real them’ to try to get a view of the world through their eyes. On a personal level, this helps me to be empathetic, while remaining objective.
• The more uncertain my mentee is feeling, the more they need me. In this context, I believe that my role is to encourage my mentees to remember all the things that have helped them be who they are – resilience, survival, excellence, empathy, love of life, family, the list can be never ending. My mentees can learn to sustain their positivity, especially in times of disappointment.
The positive impact of mentoring cannot always be measured or seen immediately. Often mentoring provides a foundation to enable a person to grow and develop, whether that’s personally or in the workplace.. For example, providing mentees access to my wider network has enabled them to find others who can support them with specific aspirations.
• I have learned that sharing successes and failures is of equal importance. Learning to celebrate and how to survive the challenges of life is invaluable. As a mentor, I have the ability to contribute positively to both my mentees as well as my own personal growth, by remembering that the best way to overcome disappointment is to focus instead on the art of the possible, a lesson I have learnt from my mother.
We are all people. No matter what your role at any given time, bring your whole self to bear. Be open about your values and what is important to you. The future is uncertain, so embrace each day as fully as you can, and know that whatever the world throws at you, you are not alone. Believe always: ‘Yes I can’.