Early into my first job, I believed people followed the money and stayed with a company for that reason alone. I was wrong. Many things influence the decision to stay or leave, but I believe the strongest reason is relationships with people there. It was the time and effort my mentors spent sharing their knowledge that convinced me.
Starting with my second job, I saw senior leaders spend valuable time with 20-something new graduates. These executives shared personal and professional experiences that helped them reach senior positions. They helped us determine our strengths and gave us constructive criticism in a supportive manner. I was fortunate; not all mentors were like that.
Let me clarify: I never had a formal mentor, where I was “assigned” to someone. Instead, I had mentorlike relationships with supervisors and other leaders I encountered day-to-day. Our conversations were typically spontaneous, perhaps before or after meetings.
When I asked a question or had a challenge, they talked with me about how I could approach the situation rather than directly answering the question or solving my problem. It was never, “This is what you need to do.” Instead, my mentors reflected on their past experiences and shared what they learned — both good and bad. This helped me apply their experience and wisdom to my challenges.
One memorable example took place at a particularly challenging and stressful time in my life. I was even questioning my own capabilities. One mentor said something I will never forget: “I learned I had to define what success in my life and career looks like. Without that, I didn’t have a compass and judged myself based on what others thought.” That completely reshaped my world view and priorities. It reenergized me to rise above it.
Those experiences are the roots of my passion for mentoring. As I’ve built my career, I’ve realized mentoring can be meaningful throughout a mentee’s career. I’ve also come to understand that mentoring must evolve and remain contemporary in order to be effective in today’s business environments with vast generational and cultural divides. Today’s executives lead employees from all over the world and from as many as four generations: from as far back as the “Silent Generation” (those born as late as 1945) to Baby Boomers (about 1946 to 1964) and through Generations X (about 1965 to 1982) and Y (today’s young adults, also called the Millennials).
There is a vast gulf between the values and work expectations of those in the Silent Generation versus Boomers versus Generation Y. The older generations aren’t as focused on relationships and expect employees to already know what they want. They are in distinct contrast to Generation Y, whose members do want rewarding relationships. The younger employees seem to place a higher value on trust, making an impact, and learning quickly.
As a Gen Xer, I can effectively connect the younger and older generations. When a senior leader announces what the company is going to do and how, I help people understand what it means to them and how to line up their value systems with the company and their careers.
Mentoring can also align people who are working in new or different corporate cultures, both domestically and globally. Mentoring may take different shapes in different countries. For example, some cultures require a more formal dialog, and some won’t allow opening up to a senior leader at all. Often, the best way a mentor can help people adjust to their cultural surroundings is by demonstrating desired behaviors rather than just describing them.
I learned a tremendous amount when Celanese expanded into China. At first, employees were hesitant to ask questions, even in one-on-one sessions or skip-level meetings where employees talked with their managers’ managers. Over time, these employees observed their leaders practicing the same values they talked about, so the employees began to open up and ask the tough, direct questions.
To build trust, mentors must have an open door and be willing to listen. Whether the encounter is in the elevator, company cafeteria, or an office, the figurative open door should help people feel comfortable opening up. Every encounter is a mentoring opportunity.
Again, a mentor’s job isn’t to solve the mentee’s problems. With a mentor’s experience and different perspectives, mentees can improve their own problem-solving skills and resolve issues themselves.
My views on mentoring continue to evolve. I now believe mentoring can be most powerful when done by the same person or people and over an extended time period. I typically work with 5 to 10 people so we can truly build a relationship. I can understand their work, their values, and what the company expects of them. I get to know what the mentees do outside of work and their moral compass, which helps me determine what’s most relevant to helping them focus on their career and life priorities.
For most people, it’s easier to talk about work but more difficult to tie work to where they are in their lives. A good mentor will do both. I once worked with someone who loved Dallas and had left his previous job to stay there. But when a career opportunity opened up in China, he wanted to go. We discussed whether his family really understood how it would affect them. They ended up going, and fortunately it was a success for both him and his family.
Mentoring is hard, and one must really want to do it. A mentor has to translate someone’s desires, capabilities, and experiences into meaningful feedback. He or she has to consider and empathize with cultural, generational, and company differences. Successful mentoring relationships boil down to aligning and evaluating the nuances of one’s set of values about career, work, and life versus real-world concerns and decisions. If I can help someone understand the importance of connecting personal values and career effectiveness, I’ve had a good day.
Steven Sterin is senior vice president and chief financial officer at Celanese, a Fortune 500 company.