I didn’t go looking for a mentor but one sort of showed up in my life. Let me tell you how: right out of college I was working in residential mortgage lending, a terrible fit even though my dad had been a banker. A contact I made through some volunteer work encouraged me to apply for a job in fundraising at a hospital. At that time, my boyfriend’s mom ran a nonprofit so I called her to see what she thought about a job in development. She was very encouraging and helped me through the interview and hiring process. She became a tremendous mentor and fundraising turned out to be a good fit for me. Full disclosure: I married that boyfriend. Just so I’m completely clear: my mother-in-law has been my greatest, but not my only, mentor. I know how amazing that is because many people struggle just to communicate with their in-laws.
If she were writing this blog, Nancy Leonard would have started at the dictionary, so I did. The dictionary says “mentor” is of Greek origin and defines it this way:
Men’-tor – Noun
1. A wise and trusted counselor or teacher
2. An influential senior sponsor or supporter
Synonyms: adviser, master, guide, preceptor
I like that “mentor” has Greek origin because she was the Executive Director of a Greek letter women’s fraternity for over 20 years. She would assure you that “fraternity” is the right noun because the organization is older than the word sorority. She was like that. She wouldn’t have raised her fist for women’s rights or bristled if you tried to correct the statement. She knew her stuff and generously taught the rest of us so much.
That’s a good trait in a mentor: extensive knowledge but no need to show it off. Here are some other traits I’ve valued in my mentor:
Bright – she was very smart and had a love of learning that insured she kept getting smarter. Her brightness also extended into her sense of humor.
Talented – she was musical, artistic, a brilliant writer and a relentless proofreader.
Respected – she was a leader in her field and set a great example on how to earn respect through years of dedicated service to others.
Varied experience and interests – she started as a business teacher (and could write in shorthand!) but also hosted a children’s TV program, and directed public relations for one of Indianapolis’ biggest festivals. Add to those: a love of sports, musicals, politics and current events and I had a mentor who could help in a lot of areas.
Genuine interest in helping younger people – I was not her only mentee, I was one of dozens. She used her positions – both personal and professional – to help younger people. She had empathy for our challenges. But if I’m going to say “empathy” I must stress not sympathy. Nancy never let me wallow in self-pity. If I didn’t like a situation, she encouraged me to change it or change my attitude.
Ability to offer critique, not criticism – she could have the tough conversations with me but always left me feeling like I could get better.
Willing to be honest with me – not be critical or harsh but she encouraged me to look at things objectively and take the appropriate action.
Willingness – many talented people have been a good influence on me but her willingness to invest time and energy into my life is what made her a true mentor.
I am realizing now that my life is filled with mentors. Some have been long-term and close, while others have been in my career for a brief time. That is an additional trait: the right fit at the right time, whether through a formal program or just coincidence.
I remember the first time someone introduced me as their mentor. I was shocked and pressured. Had I signed up for that assignment? Was I worthy? Had I really added any value? Since then, I’ve learned to answer those questions with a resounding “YES!” As a way of thanking my mentors, I am committed to being available for those around me.
I’ve been thinking about mentors because January is National Mentor Month. I originally wrote this tribute when my “wise and trusted counselor” passed away. I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on how blessed I was to have known her. I’ll close by saying: thank you to all of my mentors. I appreciate what you have done for me. Most especially, thank you to Nancy Leonard – mentor, mother-in-law and friend.