Taking charge of your professional growth with the power of self-mentoring

By Amanda Mewborn

As we progress in our careers, it can be difficult to find mentors. And, great leaders who would make great mentors for us are often too busy to mentor the people who request their mentorship. While there are many great formal mentorship programs, through our employers, alumni networks, and professional societies, one mentorship opportunity isn’t being fully utilized: self-mentoring.

To me, self-mentoring has four main components:

1. Define your passion

What energizes you? What activities or work events seem to make time fly by? For me, I’m passionate about opportunities to make a difference for others, whether that be my coworkers, patients, or the community. I’m also passionate about improvement and any opportunity to make things better. I like to solve problems. I like to work with others and collaborate with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives than me. I like to work on projects that will make a meaningful difference in this world, as I only have one shot at this life.

What activities make time seem to drag on forever? For me, sitting in my office working independently for hours is an energy drain. My office is in the basement of a medical office building, with no windows, and the primary wall I look at is painted a dark green color. The fluorescent overhead lights eventually cause a headache from the reflection on the computer screen. Being an extrovert, working alone for long periods of time is mentally exhausting.

I use the information about my passions and energy drains to select opportunities to accept. All of us have multiple opportunities to consider: what tasks to delegate, volunteer opportunities, work projects to pursue, family activities and events, and how to spend free time, to name a few. By selecting opportunities that align with your passions, you can make the most of your limited precious resource of time. The converse is true as well, meaning that it’s important to decline opportunities that do not align with your passions.

2. Identify and develop your strengths

Early in my career, as a true improvement professional, I identified all the skills and that I wasn’t very good at, and I put tons of energy into improving those skills. After exerting gobs of effort to improve at a skill that was not innate, and often didn’t align with my passions, I’d find I made some progress, but rarely did I make a lot of improvement.

About 12 years ago, my employer nominated me for a leadership program, which included an assessment by an organizational psychologist. The assessment included timed tests which provided insight into my intellect as well as how I approached things when there wasn’t enough time to do it all. The assessment also involved an interview with the psychologist, and probably a few other components that I don’t recall since they weren’t as intimidating as tests and interviews. I had one major take-away from all of this, which I still use today. The take-away was to focus on improving on what I’m already good at and minimize the amount of work that isn’t aligned with my strengths. The organizational psychologist helped me understand that, with very little effort, I could become much better at things I’m good at doing. Meanwhile, it would take tons of effort to become better at things that I’m not good at doing. This shift in my perspective has transformed my approach at self-improvement.

At my next employer, our team took the “Strengths Finder” assessment. The results of this non-intimidating, simple assessment provide you with a list of your top 5 strengths. Knowing this information helps you to use your strengths to be more successful. It follows the same principle that I learned from the organizational psychologist, focus on developing your strengths instead of improving your weaknesses. After all, we are all different, and your weakness is someone else’s strength. By putting each person in a position to maximize his strengths, the entire team’s performance improves.

3. Find people who you admire

We all see great leaders in action daily. And, no doubt we all want to be mentored by those great leaders. None of them have enough bandwidth to mentor us all, but we all have an opportunity to mentor ourselves by observing the great leader. What makes this person a great leader? What behaviors can be pinpointed that you can attempt to emulate? How does this person handle stress? What does this person do when there is a crisis? How does this person support the team? What is important to this person? What messages and styles best resonate with this leader?

In my current work environment, I am very fortunate to have several leaders that I admire. I am constantly observing them in meetings and in their interactions with others. I take time alone to think about my observations and how I can apply those observations to my own leadership style and actions. When entering a new situation, I pause and think about what the person I admire would do. Taking myself out of my own perspective and looking at the situation from the perspective of someone I admire is always an opportunity to gain new insights.

Not only does observation and reflection result in your own self-development, another benefit of doing this is your ability to predict how the leader will react in various situations. Paying attention to these observations can also help you strategize in your approach and interactions with that leader. For high stakes situations, I develop “maps” with predictions about how each person in a meeting will react to the presentation (what will their perspective be) and score each leader’s emotion level around that reaction (how strongly will they feel). Developing this map has helped me in preparing the presentation materials to proactively address the concerns and interests of each of the leaders in the room. I originally started developing these maps when I worked in a sales role, where it was very important to know the stakeholders, their background, and what was important to each of them. Since then, I modified the concept to serve as a mentorship tool.

4. Ask for feedback

The fourth component of self-mentoring is asking for feedback. We all know the power of real-time, constructive feedback, yet most of us rarely give or receive it. Seek opportunities to give and receive feedback, as the more we do it, the less awkward it becomes.

Feedback is valuable from all levels in the organization, as it’s not only important how the top executives perceive you. Since it may be uncomfortable for a front-line worker to give feedback to someone who is higher in the organization, you may find ways to get feedback without being overt. For example, you can ask, “what can I do to help you?” or “how could we have handled that situation differently?” or “what are we missing in our plan?” These simple questions open the door for anyone to offer a perspective you hadn’t considered or offer a different way of approaching the problem. This also makes you more approachable as a leader, as staff know you want to be the best you can be.

Another opportunity for feedback is in debriefs after events. Schedule a debrief to get the team back together, and ask what went well, what didn’t go well, what should be done differently next time, and for any follow-up that should be done to prevent the situation from happening again or make it easier if/when it does happen.

Finally, it’s fast and easy to get feedback one-on-one after a meeting. Walk with the person you want feedback from, as it doesn’t take any extra time. Ask the person for his or her thoughts on how you handled yourself in the meeting. Be prepared, because the person may ask you for feedback as well, and you want to be ready to provide this same courtesy to them as well.

Self-mentoring can be a powerful tool for improvement, as you don’t have to rely on anyone else to help you like a formal mentoring program. There are four main components of self-mentoring. The first component is identifying your passions and what gives you energy, and then selecting opportunities that align with your passions. The second is identifying and developing your strengths, as it’s a lot easier to improve on something you’re already good at doing. The third is to find people who you admire, and observe them and emulate the behaviors you admire. The final component is to ask for feedback, as you’ll be surprised how helpful this can be in improving your approach and style. How can you take charge of being the best you by using the resources that are already around you?