Finding the right mentors can be an extremely important tool for a successful career. In my career, I’ve had a few truly important mentors, almost all of them men. On Monday, I met with one of my most important mentors, Carver Mead. Carver was my PhD thesis advisor, and had a profound influence on my thinking, on my career, and has become a dear friend.
Each mentor brings new experiences, and new ideas, but there are a few important ideas that came directly from my relationship with Carver.
1. He believed in me – At an early stage in my career, confidence was a huge issue for me (and for many women, men too, but especially women). Having someone believe in me, so that I could learn to believe in myself, was critical
2. He challenged the status quo – in science and technology, often there is a norm of thinking. Most innovation occurs at the boundaries of accepted norms, often by applying ideas from other disciplines. My thesis used circles as the basic building blocks when everyone else were using squares, and Carver used analog circuits for modeling biology when digital logic was the norm.
3. He developed collective team thinking – his students collectively formed a design team, where every member was expected to contribute, but we all listened to each other. His group was my first exposure to the best of what teams can offer.
What if you can’t find a mentor in your immediate community? There are still opportunities. The non-profit organization MentorNet provides online mentoring relationships for students and faculty. There are many examples of life changing mentoring relationships created through MentorNet. As a participant of MentorNet, you plug into a system that has been demonstrated to work for thousands of people. One of the things that I like about their approach is that the system seeds the year long ongoing email conversation between Protégée and Mentor with questions that are useful and interesting on topics, such as time management, self confidence and managing stress. For example, for students looking for a job, hearing from someone with experience about how to approach your search, can make a huge difference.
Today, as a non-profit CEO, mentors are still important to me, but often they are peers and we meet together to discuss deeply the issues and opportunities of running an organization. I’ve developed a group of peer mentors, and depending on what is going on in my life, I reach out to the appropriate person. For example, I have a group of two other women, one is a non-profit CEO, and one is a medical doctor. We’ve had breakfast every month (well almost every month) for the last five years, and we always provide three goals for the following month. This group has become a source of support and development.
Mentoring is very important to a career, especially during the early years as the ideas that will guide your future are forming. There are resources available as well as many people who would be honored to be asked.