We all have lists of things we’d like to do more of, if only we had the time: exercising, reading, mentoring others. But even the busiest of people can make space in their lives for what really matters. And mentoring should be on that list.
Take Laurie Glimcher, an immunologist and dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “Frankly, I have always thought that my most important job . . . was mentoring the next generation of physicians and scientists,” she says. Glimcher stood by this even when she had three young kids at home and was building a research lab at Harvard.
Her key insight? Mentoring is not a charitable act. Few of us have so fully arrived in our careers that we cannot be helped by other people. In medical research, the rock stars you mentor early in your career will be your co-authors on major studies later. In business, if you mentor enough high-performers, someone is going to start a billion-dollar company that needs someone–just like you!–to run a major division. Here’s how to make mentoring part of your life.
Smart mentors “select proteges based on performance and potential,” writes Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In. Given this, Sandberg believes organizations send the wrong message to young people. “We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel,'” she says. “Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’”
You can’t mentor everyone. So go ahead and place your bets on the most promising people. Recently Glimcher had a long conversation with a female graduate student about not only her career, but her boyfriend’s career as well. Why did she make the time for that? “Because she’s a very talented young woman, and I want to figure out how she can best contribute to the field of science,” she says. “I don’t want to lose her.” If you don’t mind losing someone? That’s a different matter.
In her early thirties, when Glimcher was working at the National Institutes of Health and had a young daughter, she had to confine work mostly to her daughter’s daycare hours. “I saw the cafeteria twice in the three years I was there,” she says. But she did make all sorts of useful connections by setting priorities about how and with whom she spent her time.
Prioritize meeting with people whose careers you can help. “If you really want to do something, you can fit it in,” says Glimcher. Give up other things: nice-but-not-critical meetings, perhaps, or leisurely lunches.
Hopefully, many people you want to mentor are, in fact, your direct reports, because you’ve hired amazing people whose careers you can’t wait to watch unfold. In this case, mentoring can be part of daily activity, as long as you’re not trying to manage too many people.
“Having a medium-sized lab rather than a large lab was best for my style,” says Glimcher. “My style was and still is to meet with everyone in the lab one-on-one.” She’d review experiments and plan the next weeks with team members. “When things were not going well, I let them know they had my emotional and intellectual support. I couldn’t do that with a huge lab.”
Let mentees know that they should feel free to drop by to share exciting new results or challenges with you. Glimcher won people’s loyalty by being accessible. “You have your scheduled appointments,” she’d tell them, “but don’t hesitate to pop your head in the door.” A lot of mentoring can happen in quick spurts, not just formal sessions.
As she prepares to travel to Paris to receive the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award, Glimcher has already been figuring out who’s going to be there for the festivities, and discussing how she can work with them. If you’re going to a conference, try to fly with a mentee, or get hotel rooms next to each other. Arrange to have meals and drinks with people who want your guidance. Or skip the panels and just meet with people instead. You’ll probably get more out of the face-to-face connection.
You have to eat, and you probably like to socialize. Why not combine these activities with mentoring? Have folks over for a casual backyard barbecue. If you’ve got kids of similar ages, get them together to play. Or you can host regular meetings at your home. Glimcher has students over to her home for dinner so she can get to know people individually.
Remember: Mentoring takes place in all kinds of situations–at work and in the rest of life. Make time for it and it will come back to reward you down the line.