This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.
In Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talks about the critical, but often misguided, efforts at mentorship, in a chapter called “Are You My Mentor?” Women have been told, she says, that their success in business and in their careers depends upon their ability to find mentors to guide them.
While we all know how important it is to have someone in your life who can provide insights and support, part of the problem, says Sandberg, is that we’ve put the onus on women to go find them–and this isn’t really how mentorship works. You don’t go up to someone you don’t really know, and who doesn’t know you, and ask her to be your mentor.
“The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides,” she writes. In other words, you don’t have to ask. That’s like going up to someone you met once and asking if they will be the love of your life. Talk about high expectations.
January is National Mentoring Month, and so it’s worth giving this rich topic some attention. While any businessperson worth her salt knows that a good mentor can make a world of difference for an emerging entrepreneur, the quid pro quo is often underappreciated or downplayed–the mentor gets just as much out of the relationship as the mentee.
Sandberg gets at the importance of mentoring as a relationship: Rather than a one-way exchange (where I give you advice and you go on your way), the relationship should be fruitful and rewarding for both parties. Mentors, by and large, choose talent that they know they can shape and guide based on their own skill set and background, and the mentee “earns” it by putting her advice and insight into action, and flourishing as a result, which in turn, ‘rewards or nourishes’ the mentor.
Here are a few other great reasons to devote some of your time to supporting an up-and-comer, or if you are needing that mentor to hold your feet to the fire, recognize that the relationship will yield benefits to more than yourself:
Relieve stress. When you give of your time and attention, you release oxytocin, the hormone responsible for feelings of love and trust. Not only do you feel good helping a young employee, but over time that generous behavior can quell your anxiety, reduce depression, and maybe even increase lifespan. Not to mention, simply get you out of your own head and away from own problems for a while.(Check out some of the research collected by Stephen Post.)
Build resilience. One-on-one lunches, calls, and emails not only foster collaboration, but an authentic connection with someone who looks up to and appreciates you. That social bonding is one of the key elements of resilience, which helps you fend off the negative effects of stress.
Remind you of how accomplished you are. Mentoring means showcasing your own expertise and sharing advice based on your own achievements and decisions. In the presence of someone hungry for your expertise and insight, you can be reminded of just how much you have to offer.
Give you a chance to learn, too. The person you’re mentoring may be 5 or 15 years younger–and in either case, that individual grew up with a different skill set and a variety of tools at her disposal that maybe you didn’t have. Mentoring isn’t one-way; you have a lot to learn from her as well, whether it’s better apps for doing what you used to do by hand, or some fresh insights that influence your own work and practices. Give her the chance to teach you, and she’ll feel she’s giving back.
Develop your sense of purpose. Beyond the feel-good aspect of connecting with someone, you’re also giving yourself the opportunity to contribute to your community and/or your field of work in a lasting, wide-ranging way.You have something of value to share with your field, and when you extend that wisdom to others who need it, you imbue your life with more meaning. You make a positive impact not just on one individual, but everyone else that individual touches, and the people she will guide one day herself.