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Stepping Into the Shoes of a Mentee

Having set up the global mentoring program for YPO and having been involved in its continued development for eight years, I thought I understood the value and mechanics of the mentor-mentee process.

Then I decided to formally step into the shoes of a mentee for some firsthand perspective. Doing so wasn’t easy, but it did provide an insightful, effective way to “walk the talk.”

As an advocate of lifelong learning, I sought and appreciated how being a mentee brought fresh perspective, enriched self-awareness and instilled new communication skills for my professional — and personal — use.

Getting started

To be honest, I worried about finding the time to commit to the mentee experience, and I was a bit afraid of testing myself as a mentee. Still, I stepped into the shoes, somewhat tentatively, and began the process of finding a mentor.

Fortunately, I met Rob Katz, a fellow YPO member in my city and chapter, who agreed to be my mentor for a 12-month period. I wanted to experience the structure of the mentoring program and see if it worked as well as my expectations for it. I had put together for YPO a framework for peer-to-peer mentoring relationships we call the Catherine Wheel Mentoring Model as a mechanism to bring more structure to the program.

Catherine Hodgson and Rob Katz

I was excited for the process because Rob was not only an experienced business leader but also a qualified coach. While I knew that I would be in good hands, I realized the process would be demanding. I would need to be open and vulnerable, get into some deep discussions and put a lot of effort into getting the most out of the experience.

The first question he asked me was what I wanted to get out of our mentoring conversations. Because I wanted to experience the structure of the program, I had not given this a lot of thought.

You may think you don’t have issues

Most people seek out a mentor because they typically have an issue that needs to be resolved. Initially, I did not think that I had any burning issue in need of mentor wisdom. However, upon reflection, I realized that I actually did have some very big issues that would be coming up during my time in the program.

I put a title to my mentee journey — “Transition.”

Among the transitions I faced was shifting from my five-year position as YPO’s global mentoring chair to running our family business. This would leave a big gap in my work day as I had dedicated so much of my time to mentoring. A lot of the day-to-day running of the business was managed by qualified staff.

Another change looming was an empty nest, as we sent off to university our youngest child. Meanwhile, my husband’s dream to sail more seriously was becoming a reality. We had bought a yacht and were planning on heading to the Mediterranean for five months every year — the beginning of a journey for us over the next few years.

I realized that having a mentor during this time would be invaluable and discussed all of this on our first call, before our meeting.

Delving and discussing

During the next 18 months (Rob had agreed to extend our initial 12-month commitment),  I learned so much about myself, my relationships, what it was like to be a mentee, and how to be a better and more confident mentor myself the next time around.

Among the lessons:

  1. Having a structure in place provided guidelines for our journey, our relationship and our conversation.

During our mentoring journey I actually changed a few things on the Catherine Wheel, which seemed to work better after I had experienced it first-hand. The structure meant that our sessions were not just a coffee shop chat. We actually got into the depth of discussion that was required for me to move forward.

  1. Knowing what to expect from each other from the beginning was helpful.

Rob had previously attended a YPO Mentoring Masterclass. Since I had been involved in setting them up, both of us knew our roles and expectations. This made it so much easier for us to move forward quickly and build trust in our relationship. I also knew, as a mentee, that I had to drive the relationship rather than my mentor.

  1. Prepping for meetings was difficult but essential.

I realized that I needed to take more time out and away from the office to really think about things at a deeper level. Rob encouraged me to meditate more and he gave me some book titles and articles to read.

Taking the time to prep is as important as the actual meeting. This is something I only realize now.

Daily journaling helped me prepare because it gave me greater clarity. My “me time” now is spent meditating, exercising or going for a walk. However, while pursuing these activities, I also prep mentally for my meetings.

I also learned that you cannot leave all the prep to just before the meeting. You need to be thinking about things and working on them throughout the month between meetings. This was probably one of the most significant learnings about the mentoring journey.

Being a mentee develops skills for being a better, more confident mentor in the future.
  1. Facing blind spots is humbling — and courageous.

My mentor identified and shared my blind spots in a gentle and caring way. When Rob held a mirror up to me, some of the things I saw were quite surprising. So often we think things are the way they are because of another person’s behavior rather than our own. It is not easy to face your shortcomings. To open your heart up to that takes courage as well as a caring mentor. Seeing things from the point of view of others created huge awareness for me.

  1. Taking a longer, broader view enables a course of action.

When I started the mentoring journey, I was caught up in the details of what was happening now and too busy just keeping my head above water to think of what was ahead of me. Rob helped me to start looking into the future and at the bigger picture, to start having difficult conversations which I had been avoiding, and to start setting a course of action for my transitions.

In effect, he was urging me to find my purpose in life. We spent 18 months going back and forth on these questions: “What is your purpose in life?” and “What are your aspirations?”

  1. Reframing the situation brings opportunities.

My mentor helped me redefine my impending transitions and to see them in a positive light, rather than something to fear. This allowed me to look for opportunities in the transitions.

Rather than endings, they were new beginnings on many fronts.

This shift did not come easily or quickly. It only happened after I mourned the loss of what I had and was prepared to look forward again rather back. This change took strength, tears, meditation, walks and quiet times on the beach. I knew that I had Rob there to support me all the way through it – and my loving husband, of course.

  1. Being a mentee develops skills for being a better, more confidant mentor in the future.

Rob shared his experiences with me but only when they were relevant to what we were discussing. He listened more than he talked and he asked me powerful questions that I could not answer immediately most of the time.

David Clutterbuck, a coaching and mentoring expert in the United Kingdom, defines powerful questions as being personal, resonant, acute, incisive, reverberating, innocent and explicit.

Having these powerful questions asked often meant I had to reflect upon them between monthly meetings – or longer.

  1. Building trust and having transparency forge a successful mentor-mentee relationship.

As my mentor, Rob asked these powerful questions, held me accountable and kept me on track; he was a sounding board and a sage. If I did not want to go in a certain direction, he did not force me to go there and was patient and empathetic. Rob gave me advice when I asked for it but did not expect me to take his advice. He encouraged me and rejoiced with me in any achievement that was made and empathized when things did not go as planned.

We were in this process together.

We built a strong professional relationship based on trust. It allowed open and honest conversations that netted robust discussions and deep, creative and innovative thinking.

  1. Committing to the process is well worth the time.

I learned the commitment to the mentoring program – to my surprise – is not onerous at all. I looked forward to every meeting and could not get over how much I got out of those two-hour sessions each month. The time flew.

This program’s impact on me, my relationships and the way I handled the transitions which I experienced was positive and powerful.  If someone had said to me “You don’t have time to do mentoring,” my answer now would be, “How could I not afford to make the time for it?”

Would I do it again?  Absolutely. In a heartbeat!

I completely believe in lifelong learning. Being a mentee is not defined by age or work experience. The sages you encounter as a mentee are as important as you being a mentor for someone else.

To remain adaptable and have the “AQ” to stay relevant (the so-called Adaptability Quotient, as presented by Amin Toufani at Singularity University), we need to ensure that we are willing to continue learning. Being a mentee is a way to do so. I truly believe that we need to learn from those who have gone before us and those who are around us.

So, if you are in doubt about whether you should be a mentee, I want to say to you, “Step into those shoes. You’ll be surprised at how far you can walk with a mentor by your side.”

Catherine Hodgson is the co-founder and CEO of The Hodgson Group in South Africa which consists of two companies, Hodgsons Importers and Worldwide Housewares. Hodgson joined YPO in 2009 and served as Global Mentoring Chair, rolling out the YPO Mentoring program to chapters around the world. She believes passionately in lifelong learning and has been on a personal journey of lifelong learning in the mentoring and coaching fields. Married with two children, she lives in Cape Town, South Africa and spends five months of the year sailing in Europe. Catherine and her husband Nicholas are passionate about the environment and have begun working with retailers and groups on reducing plastic and non-biodegradable material to help save our oceans.