May 10, 2013

On the Shoulders of Others

In the article The Misery of Mentoring Millenials, BusinessWeek writer Marina Khidekel suggested, "For a new generation of workers, the idea of seeking out a single career confidant is…old-fashioned…."

Old-fashioned? Initially, this struck me as insulting. But I’m 40. My young professional (YP) days occurred years ago. So I considered that maybe Khidekel is onto something, that maybe you—"the new generation of workers"—are onto something. I talked about it with my colleague, Christine Scheller, who had a number of wise thoughts to consider.

Christine is an independent multi-media journalist, having written extensively for national outlets such as Christianity Today, The Huffington Post, and Urban Faith. Her road to success took a non-traditional route, requiring 15 years of switching majors and a break for child-rearing before finally graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. She knows a bit about needing advice.

See what you think.

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Christine, if you were to start over in your 20s, would you go for the singular mentor, or a "personal board of advisers" as one YP did in the article?

I'm not sure it's helpful to speculate on what I would do if I could start over, because the thing about being young is that you don't yet know what you don't know. It's not until life knocks you around a bitquote that you begin to really appreciate the wisdom of your elders. I will say though that the "personal board of advisers" sounds a bit too much like an ode to narcissism for my taste. With one or two mentors, an actual relationship can form in which trust can be established.

How does someone pick, regardless of whether it’s two guides or ten?

My step-dad is a third-generation iron worker who began his career in high school. He built his first house when he was 18 years old. At 75, he is still building things. It's obvious to anyone who knows him that he chose well when he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.

So your step-dad chose well, and it sounds like a novice (comparably speaking) would be wise in following someone like him. I wish it were always so clear.

Two Caution Points

The example of your step-dad raises two questions, Christine: one about independence and the other about patience. Khidekel says that "Finding a mentor can seem beside the point for those determined to forge their own paths and those comfortable promoting themselves." What’s your take on YPs who decide to ignore the wisdom of master workers like your step-dad?

I'm reminded of the wisdom of Proverbs here, like: "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed" (15:22), and "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses" (27:6). The bottom line is if we want to build long, solid careers, we need people to help us recognize our blind spots, people who care about us and who will tell us the truth rather than just flatter us.

Who sees your blind spots?

Many people, but I’ve looked to my husband and my step-dad for career guidance. Both have been successful managers, so they are my go-to people. But I could have benefited from one or two female mentors earlier in my career.

Professor Susan Adams made an observation: "The younger, tech-savvy generation sees themselves as better equipped for the ‘new world’ work environment than their experienced senior colleagues, who still do things the old way…. Younger employees expect to jump in and contribute all they have immediately."

Karate Kid (1984) - Sony PicturesI don’t know how applicable this is to iron-working, but her statement makes me think of your step-dad as a Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid. What advice would you offer to the young and confident group of Daniel Larussos who do know more than their seniors in certain ways?

I would advise them to treat their coworkers with respect, because it won't be long before they are the senior colleagues with ambitious young professionals nipping at their heels. Instead of pushing past senior coworkers, why not ask for their help in areas one hasn't mastered and, in turn, offer to help them get caught up on the 'new world' skills they lack?

I’m optimistic about this view. Hard work, but I’m optimistic. (Speaking of new world, I wonder if anyone got my Karate Kid reference. 1984 was so long ago.)

Christine, have you ever been assigned a coach?

When I was in college as an adult student, I did an independent study project under a professor who went on to become president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Media. We developed an interesting friendship after I challenged her in class when she left off the Deuteronomy 6:5 preamble to Jesus's command to "Love your neighbor as yourself." I'd say it went well, since she agreed to be my faculty adviser after that! We still keep in touch occasionally by email.

I had a similar experience with Richard "Dick" Heffner, who was also a professor of mine. He allowed a young man to take up a large chunk of class one day debating whether or not he (Dick) had the right to assign us the novel Gone With the Wind over Thanksgiving break. I had arranged babysitting for my children, paid hard-earned cash for it and for the class, and had driven an hour to get there. So, when the discussion showed no signs of letting up, I got up and walked out of class. Dick called me into his office after the next class to discuss what had happened, and we became friends.

This may not be the best approach to finding mentors, by the way.

Well, we’ll add it to the list of possibilities. It worked for you, after all.  ;) 

Natural Influencers

Think back over the years and give me three great influencers on how you work today. They may not have been official mentors or coaches, per se.

My mother. She taught me to pursue excellence in everything I do. She is a seamstress and a wonderful cook who infuses everything she does with love.

My husband. He was a highly successful salesman who taught me to work smart and steady rather than fast and furious. I'd sometimes grow impatient with his approach, but eventually learned that he was getting farther with his goals than I was with mine because I'd burn myself out on a regular basis.

And third?

My journalism mentor, Richard Heffner, host of The Open Mind, one of the longest running shows on public television. He taught me to shed light on topics rather than set fire to them. That's still my guiding principle as a journalist.

How might you appear on somebody else’s influencer list?

"Christine taught me to never give up, to hold fast to my integrity, and to be kind to myself and others." At least that's what I'd want them to say.  :)

I’d agree with them! Okay, one more question. In the book of Jeremiah, the Lord says, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (6:16). How has this wisdom been true for you as an employee?

More than as an employee, this Scripture resonates in regard to decisions I've made about work/life balance. I turned down some wonderful opportunities so that I could be home with my children. Although my husband's early retirement for medical reasons makes me question the wisdom of those decisions, the early deaths of both my father and son remind me that I chose well for myself and my family. Other people are made differently and are informed by different life experiences. They know what's best for them, and it may look very different than what was best for me.

Keys to Consider

Which is where I thought we might end, Christine—no set path. The article suggests some very interesting options for YPs, but it really comes down to a few keys: Having wise people in your life (regardless of the quantity), and being able to recognize them as wise. Patience and humility. Acting on your gifts. What else?

I would say that our talents and gifts are just that, gifts from God. They are often visible to others, even in their nascent forms. If we entrust ourselves to God, trust our own instincts and listen to the affirmation of those who recognize our gifts, we'll find our way.

Well said. Thank you.

 

Image by Alex Cairncross. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Christine Scheller is a YP coach with The High Calling. Connect with Christine through her profile and at Explorations Media, L.L.C. Interview by Sam Van Eman, narrator of A Beautiful Trench It Was.

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