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The Value of Mentorship

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | January 31, 2022

Mentorships are one of the oldest and most successful forms of personal and organizational development. Finding individuals that can be open and honest with you about your ideas, goals, and strategies can help you fulfill your potential and avoid costly missteps. At its core, the concept of mentorship relationships allow the mentee to view issues from a different perspective. For businesses and organizations, the ability to disconnect your own individual preferences, wants and needs from a potential strategy is critical, and mentors can help force the outside perspective.
That’s not to say that traditional mentorships are perfect. The standard mentor is someone who is older, with more experience within the field you are interested in. Newer forms of mentorship function more like a focus group, with people that represent different generations, demographic groups, ideologies, and levels of expertise that you can extract information from about particular topics. As a Gen Xer, I’ve relied heavily on Baby Boomer mentors over my professional career. Steve Hanschu guided a lot of my early design strategy; Mike Turnbull was vital to understanding alternate finance; and Steve Corbin was always willing to share his perspective. I have several other people whose ears I bend whenever I can (Julie Johnson, Karen Sommers, Ray Toso, Mark McAnarney, Deb Huth, Mary Wirth, Dale Davis and many others). Modern mentorships include people who offer different perspectives regardless of their generation. Viewing a “Gen Z” or Millennial as a mentor may sound strange to some, but if you don’t actively seek other perspectives you may make decisions that have long term negative consequences for your business or organization.
The following are some things to consider when engaging a mentorship relationship:

  1. Accept that there are things you don’t know (and a LOT of things that you don’t know that you don’t know).- I’m always amazed at the impacts small actions can make (both good and bad). Conscious efforts to absorb information from people who have done things (not just talked about things) is really important to create efficiency and connect disparate efforts. Understanding the foundational elements of a business, a building, an organization, or movement through the people that were involved in the buildout or maintenance can provide valuable perspective. Working with people that have different skill sets than you possess in a mentor environment forces you to think about different methods to solve problems or engage opportunities.
  2. Conduct a realistic self assessment to round out your skill set with individual mentors.- Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Good mentor relationships don’t simply reinforce your strengths and gloss over areas where improvement is necessary. I have a tendency to speak fast and type fluidly (sometimes lacking accuracy) and one of my mentors has a very thoughtful approach with a brilliant grasp of the written word. I have a very forward focused personality, and several of my mentors provide historic perspectives. I hate expressing emotion, and some of my most trusted people I go to for advice help me understand emotional decision making. Some of the biggest trends in today’s youth baffle me, and I make a conscious effort to engage a few trusted individuals who can explain cultural shifts. I am an introvert at heart, and I overindulge in research, so I have a few people that I run concepts by that are much more outgoing and “go with their gut” decidedly more than I’m comfortable with. Politically, I’m generally a moderate, so I engage people on both sides of the spectrum (though in today’s political environment, that is difficult). Understanding the real you is critical to any successful mentorship process. If you don’t know where you are right now, it is difficult to tell where you are going.
  3. When you are building programs, products, or services for specific demographics, they should be part of a mentorship outreach.- This is critically important, especially in community planning. The number of rural housing initiatives spearheaded by individuals building structures to “retain youth” without actually talking to youth is common (and depressing). Early engagement with consumers in target demographic groups through thoughtful mentorships can make your public use project, new menu, altered marketing campaign, or store layout/amenities actually resonate with your selected group. I can (and do) grumble about people’s taste in music and aesthetic decisions, but it is critical to the success of our organization to adjust to our target and not expect our consuming public to conform to us. Mentors in representative groups can give you valuable feedback, and act as ambassadors to gather feedback from like constituents.
  4. One of the worst marketing mistakes you can make is to believe everyone is like you (they aren’t).- One of my friends from college is a super science fiction aficionado (specifically Star Wars). Every business concept discussed, community amenity detailed, or simple event recalled would some how revert back to a sci-fi related proposition, with the expectation that everyone would “get it”. Assuming that everyone else on the planet is into the same things you are leads to really bad decisions. Good mentorship relationships can remind you that the values and the interests of others vary wildly. If all of your advisors are into the exact same things you are, you don’t have advisors; you have people that just reinforce your preexisting opinion.
  5. Improve your listening skills.- Part of the mentorship process is clearly communicating the issues you are having, and asking probing questions that can help you improve. In the past, a simple “let’s grab some coffee” followed by conversation was a standard lead in to establish a line of communication. Technology fused with our hectic schedules means that we sometimes have to “listen” through text, emails, FaceTime or a variety of other communication mechanisms. Be respectful of your mentors preferred communication conduit, and allow them to provide the necessary context.
  6. Challenging each other can lead to better understanding of decision making processes.- Don’t engage mentors to simply reinforce what you want to hear. Good mentor mentee relationships can respectfully challenge one another. Anyone can sit around a table and “network” with limited impact on their personal growth, but the ability to “deep dive” into topics to gather understanding is the hallmark of a good mentorship relationship.
  7. Understand that in the grand scheme of things, none of us is a big deal.- Mentor/mentee discussions aren’t a brag session. Understanding, improvement, and identifying options are part of a good growth discussion. Seeking improvements through gathering outside perspectives can be a humbling but necessary experience. For some, the prospect of “getting a win” to elevate their self concept or perceived community standing overshadows the desire for personal or community improvement. When entering into a productive mentor/mentee relationship, understand that you are part of a larger purpose, and that purpose isn’t to make yourself seem larger.

Who are your mentors? When you look at your job, organization, or goals whose perspective are you missing? If you are honest about your skill set, what deficiencies do you have that could improve with the correct guidance? If you are thoughtfully engaging those questions, maybe it is time to identify some mentors in your life.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.