“I need help.”
I’m not good at saying this. My whole life, I’ve been the one that other people come to for help; I’ve built a career with the mindset of “let me help you solve your problems.” Historically, asking for help has made me deeply uncomfortable, like I had failed somehow.
And yet, I had to utter those three little words into the phone on one of the scariest days of my career. I remember where I was, I remember what I was wearing, and I remember the weather. Every little detail was seared into my mind by fear. A small problem I had been putting off dealing with for a long time had suddenly turned into a big problem that threatened the future of the company (not hyperbole). This was scary, but the fact that I had no idea what to do was even more frightening.
So, I called a mentor and asked for help. In fact, I called four mentors. Each one had their own area of expertise to apply to my problem, and I hoped that I could combine all of their advice to somehow get myself out of the mess that I was in. Eventually, this plan worked.
But, more valuable than helping me solve this big, scary business problem was the fact that each of my mentors picked up the phone when I frantically called them on the weekend. They each had busy lives and careers, yet they still made time to help me. I was terrified about what was going to happen to my business, and without these mentors, I’m certain I would have collapsed under the fear. Each one, in taking the time to talk to me, validated my fears, showed me that I wasn’t alone, and pushed me to take action. Fear and loneliness are a diabolical combination. If I didn't have anyone to call that day, I don’t know if I would still have a company.
This post is about mentorship. The example above illustrates how mentors can help you out in an emergency. This is one benefit of having a mentor, but there's more to it. If you’re making the most of these relationships, mentors can help you avoid most emergencies, which—take it from me—is preferable.
The Sounding Board
The first and most obvious benefit of a mentor is that they can be a sounding board. What I’m about to tell you is not a secret, but it’s not something people say enough: nobody knows what they’re doing when they first start a new endeavor. Whether it’s starting a company or brewing kombucha or being a first-year teacher, your first day (and probably your first week, first month, and first year) is going to be a rough one. When you’re learning how to run a classroom or a business, the stakes are high, so you have to learn fast. As a teacher, the quality of your instruction can determine your students’ future opportunities (or lack thereof). As a business leader, your customers are relying on you to solve a problem in their lives, and your team is counting on you to make payroll every month.
Nobody expects you to know everything on day one, but as a leader, it’s your job to figure it out quickly. Mentors can help you scale the steep learning curve of leadership by listening to the challenges you’re facing, sharing advice, and helping you evaluate tough decisions. They've been in your shoes before, and while they can’t remove every obstacle in your path, they can help you leapfrog some bad decisions by sharing what they’ve learned from the mistakes they’ve made. Success doesn’t mean never making mistakes; success comes from learning from your mistakes and turning them into opportunities. This is not an innate skill—mentors can help you get better at it.
Pushing You Out of the Nest
Another role of a mentor that's just as important as being a sounding board is pushing you out of the nest when you’re too scared to fly on your own. Being a CEO is incredibly lonely sometimes, especially when you’re getting the business started and you’re literally the only person in the company. It’s equally lonely when you’re five years in, responsible for the livelihoods of 20 people, and facing tough choices. This loneliness will eventually drive you insane if you try to manage the ups and downs of running a business completely on your own. The fear of not knowing what to do can be paralyzing. A good mentor will recognize when you’re holding yourself back and give you the push you need to get going. One of the things I value most in each of my mentors is that they don’t try to make tough decisions for me. Instead, they help me take my thoughts from a crazy jumble in my head to an actionable plan that's written down.
Facing Your Fear
A trusted mentor once told me, “Fear is the only thing that gets smaller when you walk toward it.” She was one of the people I called on that terrifying day I described above. I cannot emphasize enough how afraid I was that I wouldn’t be able to solve my problem without blowing up the company. My mentor’s gentle nudging helped me believe that I could face this problem, and her experience navigating similar situations throughout her career helped me start planning how I was going to tackle this challenge. Maybe most importantly, she helped me realize that I wasn’t a failure for getting myself into the mess I was in. She allowed me to forgive myself for the mistakes that got me into this pickle, and then she helped give me the direction I needed to chart my path out of it.
If I can only give one piece of advice to anyone embarking on a career—whether in business, software development, teaching, or kombucha-making—it would be to find a mentor. Most people who are experts in their field love sharing advice. They’re naturally curious people who love solving problems and respond positively when other curious, driven, solution-oriented people seek them out. If you’re a woman earning a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology or an MPS in Information Technology Management at the Tulane School of Professional Advancement, you can get matched with a mentor through the Women in Technology Mentorship Program. If you’re not in a school with a structured mentorship program, talk to your professors. I still email my undergrad professors, even ten years after graduation. Though a professor may not be able to answer every question you have, they probably know people who can and will be happy to make introductions for you. Once you find a mentor, you need to make the most of them. These are busy people with careers, so taking ownership of scheduling and communication will make it easy for them to say yes to meeting with you. Before your meetings, share an agenda, or at least come prepared with questions. Smart, curious people respond well to other smart, curious people, so take the lead in the relationship and your mentor will happily follow, and will likely lavish you with excellent advice (and free coffee).
As an emerging leader in the Education Technology industry, SoPA alum Libby Fischer is already making a name for herself both nationally and in New Orleans, where she lives and leads Whetstone Education. Learn more about Libby.