How a Mentor Can Lead to Career Success

CTU Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Dr. Connie Johnson offers her unique perspective on the importance of mentorship and career advancement.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Hello and welcome to the Colorado Technical University video blog. I’m your host, Katy Zimmerman, and today we’re talking with Chief Academic Officer and Provost Dr. Connie Johnson about how a mentor can lead to career success. Welcome, Dr. Johnson and thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
Thank you Katy. I’m really looking forward to talking about this topic because I have a real passion for mentorship, and have a number of things to discuss with everyone about being a mentor, and also about being a mentee.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Awesome.  Well, Dr. Johnson has worked in academics for more than 20 years serving as a faculty member, program chair, vice president of academic affairs, and vice president of student affairs. Prior to higher education, she worked as a licensed stock broker for 10 years.  And then, is also a mother of college students, and a fitness enthusiast. I’m thrilled to be discussing this with you today. I know that, as you mentioned, this is a topic that you’re particularly passionate about. I agree, I think it’s a very important topic to educate young aspiring professionals on how the importance of finding a mentor, but also how to do that successfully. I think that’s probably one of the biggest areas of opportunity. Before we start, I want to read some thoughts I found that Oprah Winfrey actually said on mentors. She said “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside of yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you know that no matter how dark the night, the morning joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden in your own view.” She went on to say that “I think mentors are important, and I don’t think anyone makes it in the world without some form of mentorship; nobody makes it alone. We’re all mentors to people, even when we don’t know it.” So to start us off, can you tell us a little bit about how mentorship has helped shape your life and your career?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
You know, I was thinking about in preparation for this, when was the first time that I was aware that I needed a mentor or was attracted to a mentor. And it was very early in my career. And it was a gentlemen, and I can remember thinking, “I want to lead like he does.” And then emulated him and spent a lot of time being taught, really, how to lead people. At that time, it was faculty. So I would have to say that early in my career, quite by accident really, I realized how important mentors were as far as giving me some guidance about how I wanted to behave. At that point it wasn’t so much interaction one-on-one, it was really more spending time in a professional setting. But that is when I made a real decision to continue to seek out mentors through my career.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Great. Why do you think that, for those who are unfamiliar with the concept of having a mentor, what do you think the value is? What is a mentor, I guess?  Let’s start there.

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
I think it’s different for different people. So mentors can be somebody you have that one-on-one relationship with, you have meetings with, you talk about what’s on your mind personally, professionally.  And you have that kind of one-on-one relationship.  I think mentors can also be those people in work settings that you meet with professionally that help to guide you along the way. I think that mentors are very important because you do need that safe zone. And I say “safe zone,” somebody that you can talk to about situations at work that maybe you don’t have any vested interest in. So it might not even be your boss – it may be somebody completely outside your circle. And again, depending on where you are in your career path, a mentor might serve a different role for you.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Do you think that there’s value in one type over another with the different kinds of mentors that you might have? Or is it, maybe having a mix of go-to people that you can go to for different purposes?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
And that’s a great question. I was thinking about that as well recently. Where I am in my career - which is well into my career - I still have mentors. But I have a different need for a mentor now than I did, say, when I was starting off in my career. So I think it depends on your need and it can depend upon where you are in your career. And I’ll give you an example: I recently had the opportunity to have a mentoring experience with a CEO of a company. It was a gentleman.  It was really valuable, though, because I listened to his perspectives. So it wasn’t so much that our discussions were about how to behave on a day-to-day basis, but I wanted to expand my knowledge about how do you…what do you think about?  What do you think about different situations?  And in that case, the mentoring was very valuable to me. I also have had mentoring relationships where it was, “Oh I have this situation, what do you think I should do in that situation?” So again, depending upon what you need at your point in your career, I really think that mentoring would serve a variety of different needs.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
That’s a good tip. I read recently in a survey by a consulting firm, Accenture.  They did a study.  And of all the respondents that they asked, a third of those polled reported, only a third reported  having a formal or informal mentor. One in five respondents said that their company had a formal mentoring program in place. And when asked what tactics that they’ve previously used to move their careers forward, only 19% of workers said that they used mentoring as an advancement strategy. Given that there are so many leaders who attribute much of their success to having mentors in their life, why do you think there is such a disconnection between the people using this as a viable option for career advancement?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
Well and I could be so bold as to suggest that maybe those that weren’t using mentors were not necessarily leaders.  Because I think that it’s funny.  You know, in the conversation that I had, let’s just use the CEO who was mentoring me formally. It was a six month relationship.  We agreed to meet once a month, actually once every two weeks. And, you know, in talking with him, he used mentors along the way as well. So, I think maybe it can be informal, you don’t even realize that it’s mentors, but it’s that person who you’re engaging with that’s giving you some career advice. The other point I wanted to make is that maybe it’s that we don’t recognize that that person who is developing us or we feel uncomfortable saying “Hey, would you mind meeting with me for a period of time?” or that somebody’s not necessarily saying…a leader is not saying, “Maybe we should get together in a mentoring relationship.” I do think that it probably happens more formally, but maybe not in a formal setting.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Hm.  Interesting.  I recently finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and she has a chapter devoted to finding a mentor. That while the book itself is focused on women in the workplace, I think a lot of her lessons are applicable to anybody who is seeking a mentor. It seems like there’s a lot of people understand the value that a mentor can bring to their career professionally, but very few think about how to successfully court a mentor, and think about the time constraints on their schedules, and how to best go about seeking out their counsel in a way that adds value to them. Do you have specific recommendations for people who are looking for a mentor that they can use when trying to find one?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
I do. And actually I have the privilege now of mentoring some young up-and-coming leaders in our organization. And some of what we do is scheduling early morning meetings. So for me, early morning breakfast, and I mean 7 a.m.  Which is an inconvenience, I know, to get up and drive to a 7 a.m. meeting. But the one young woman who I’m mentoring is very willing to do that, that’s very helpful for me. Another I mentor, we have dinner meetings.  And it’s just…it’s easier for me often to get away after work, before work. And so I know it’s an accommodation because it goes into personal time. I think also being flexible helps a mentor out because sometimes, for example, with my schedule, I’m traveling to campuses, I’m traveling to conferences, it might be professional meetings. And sometimes it has to be, “OK, it needs to be within this window.”  So if you do have the opportunity to mentor with somebody who has a busy schedule, I think flexibility on the part of the mentee is really helpful.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Hm.  Good to keep in mind. So once you’ve established that relationship and you’ve got your mentor there, what kinds of things should you ask? Is there…are there topics that are off limits? Are there things a mentee should focus on when communicating with the mentor in those one-on-one sessions?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
I think that depends on the mentor.  Some, and again, I had participated in a formal mentoring situation with another group of leaders, female leaders.  And their mentors all handled it differently. So some went into their mentoring meetings with an agenda.  You know, “I want to cover these points.” Others had more open, free-flowing, let’s just have a discussion.  So I think, again, it really is the tone and the personality of the person that you’re engaging with. And also for you because remember, that the intention of mentoring is that you to get something out of it. So if you are that list person who likes to have an agenda, then that’s what you should bring to the meeting. If you like a more free-flowing conversation, then don’t bring an agenda. But again, make sure that it is a valuable use of your time as well.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Yeah.  That makes a lot of sense. I like that – tailoring it to your own personality. I think that it would probably put someone more at ease too when they know that they don’t have to conform to a specific, rigid set of this is how my mentor relationship should work but adapting it to their own personality.  Um, let’s see.  What can a mentee do to add value to the relationship? And I would assume that if, when it’s only just asking a lot of questions (video skip at 10:34), that as a mentor that would perhaps get tiring. What can a mentee do to help add value in the relationship from your perspective?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
And I’m really glad that you asked that because really, the mentee teaches the mentor.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Really?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
Well, think about it. In my perspective, I’m mentoring young leaders who are a bit younger than I am. And I’m learning from them about how to think fresh, different perspectives, so I think one of the things I would say is don’t assume that you’re not providing the mentor some mentoring as well. I think that we all have a unique perspective.  We can all learn from each other. And for me, those most valuable relationships are not ones where I’m a teacher, which, you know, tends to be my role which is why I’m in the job I’m in, but really that it’s more dynamic. So assume that you’re going to be educating the mentor as well.  And I will tell you that in the example that I’ve just participated in recently, the CEO said he really enjoyed talking to me because he was hearing things from a different perspective he hadn’t thought of as well. So I would say go into the mentoring meeting knowing that you have something to add value as well. It is very dynamic.  And it’s not just a student and a teacher, it really is you’re learning about each other.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
Great, different perspective than I would’ve thought. It seems that there is, from what I’ve read, a disconnect between how many people are seeking mentors and the availability of senior level professionals willing to mentor. To those who are in that position who are not doing that today, do you have any thoughts for them or any advice for those who are in the mentor role who perhaps could…might consider choosing a mentee under their wing?

Dr. Connie Johnson – Chief Academic Officer and Provost
You know, I think it is very intentional. I would say be intentional.  Be intentional that we’re always trying to develop leaders.  We’re trying to coach.  And the only way to do that sometimes is through a mentoring relationship in a different way than a formal work-structured interaction. So for those that are able to mentor, I would say be intentional.  And if you have conversations with somebody who seems to be…there’s a level of comfort and you’re learning or they’re learning from you, you might say, “Would you would like to have a formal mentoring relationship?”  That’s really how I’ve done it a few times. For mentees, I will say be bold. If there is somebody who you want to talk with more, then seek that out.

Katy Zimmerman – Host
OK.  Well, thank you so much Connie. I think those are great tips and I’m excited to share this with our viewers and our community and look forward to speaking with you again on future topics. Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson and she’s very active on twitter.  You can follow her @DrConnieJohnson.  And then also be sure to check out the CTU faculty blog where she’ll be writing an upcoming blog post on mentorship. And then also check back soon for our next video blog with University Dean of Business and Management Dr. Emad Rahim on entrepreneurship. Thank you Dr. Johnson, we’ll see you next time.


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