What Mentorship Taught Me About Leadership

Over the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of mentoring a few hundred immigrants and refugees assimilate in the US by helping them find the appropriate career path and adjust to the cultural shift. Although the sense of fulfillment, which comes from helping others, is in itself worth it, the genuine passion and intention to grow others has spurred me on to transform myself significantly during the process. After each mentoring session, I reflect on what transpired during the dialogue: what went well, what didn’t, and how I can do better next time. This cycle of self-reflection reoccurs regularly and as a result, it has equipped me with some skills to better impact others.

When we think of leadership, we often think of someone with vision, domain expertise, strategic thinking, and relentless drive to make their vision come to reality. But the truth is much more primal — great leaders move us and ignite our passion; they inspire the best in us to do more and become more. I think of leadership and mentorship as a life of service in which we daily transcend our personal aspiration and turn our focus toward the needs and growth of others. I take pleasure not only in the growth of the person I’m mentoring but also in the ripple effect — the positive influence they have upon those whom they touch later in life.

Below are just a few lessons I’ve learned during mentoring sessions that can be applied in leadership:

1. Ability to Listen and ask questions:

“Leaders that can’t listen will often surround themselves with people who have nothing to say.” Andy Stanley

When I first started mentoring, I mistakenly thought my role as a mentor was to advise and instruct the person I was mentoring by telling them exactly what to do. I seldom took the time to effectively listen and ask questions to learn where they came from, their life stories, goals and priorities. I was just hearing what they were saying and impatiently rehearsing what I wanted to tell them. I quickly realized how ineffective and disengaging that was. So I started deliberately listening and asking questions to fully comprehend the full scope of their situation. Instead of giving instructions, I began directing the conversation by asking questions to draw out solutions that lie within each individual I was mentoring. I realized that it’s only through active listening and questioning that we can best ascertain the need of an individual and offer guidance that best suits their needs and reality.

As a leader in an organization, it’s difficult to really know what your team members are thinking about, what’s distressing them or how to help them get out of a performance crash; unless you take the time to listen to them. Strong leaders balance their intensity and desire to perform, with compassionate attention to their employees’ needs. They often allow people to lead themselves and make their own decisions.

Aside from being supportive, when your team comes to you with concerns, ideas, or feedback, ask them to expand on their thoughts and ensure that there is a full understanding of what’s going on. Your team can teach you a lot, and you can only leverage their perspective if you are inquisitive and willing to listen. It’s very common to get comfortable in a position of influence and assume that you’ve got all the answers, especially when you begin to enjoy some success. Great leaders have mastered the art of listening. They know how to effectively listen to their employees, customers, and partners. They embrace new ideas and have a fierce desire to learn and grow. Cultivating listening habits results in higher employee engagement, which means higher revenue and higher customer satisfaction.

2. Develop Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

There is no doubt that someone should have relevant technical competency and a reasonably high IQ, but most people are unaware how their Emotional Intelligence can play a role in their success (Here is an illuminating infographic depicting the importance of Emotional Intelligence, EQ). Emotional Intelligence is simply defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”.

Daniel Goleman, the author of the international bestseller Emotional Intelligence, established the importance of emotional intelligence to business leadership. In 1998, in what has become one of HBR’s most enduring articles, “What Makes a Leader,” he states unequivocally:

“The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions.”

According to him, there are five key elements to it:

1. Self-awareness: “The ability to recognize your emotions, and how your emotions affect your thoughts and behavior.”

2. Self-regulation: “The ability to redirect one’s disruptive emotions and impulses. (The quality of emotional intelligence that liberates us from living like hostages to our impulses).”

3. Motivation: “A passion for work that goes beyond money and status.”

4. Empathy: “The ability to understand how others are feeling and how you respond to it.”

5. Social skills: “The ability to understand others, recognize emotional cues and body language.”

You might have an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless very technically competent in your own domain, but you MUST also be able to build a team around you to accomplish something meaningful. By developing your EQ, you can engage your team at a much deeper level and create an environment that fosters innovation and collaboration.

You may be able to “buy” a person’s time with a paycheck, power, or fear, but you can only tap into their brilliance, passion, loyalty, and tenacious creativity by touching their hearts.

3. Empowerment:

“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.” David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around.

At the surface, my responsibility has been to help mentees find the right business or career opportunity, but at a deeper level, I’ve had to shift their focus from their fears and weaknesses to their strengths and distinctive qualities. It is very common for recent immigrants to despair and question whether it was right to move to this country given all that they had accomplished in their country of birth. I aim to help them realize how their past experiences can help them in the current circumstance, and how they can best position themselves in their field of interest given their experience, age, education, and future aspirations. My purpose has been to help them strive for self-sufficiency so they can confront every problem with self-assurance, without having to rely on me.

In the workplace, we often see managers that exert power on their employees and intentionally belittle and humiliate their team. This not only creates a suboptimal outcome for the team but also creates a very undesirable environment that is detrimental to employee morale and engagement. Research has repeatedly demonstrated (e.g, here and here) a positive correlation in empowerment and strong job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization. Empowered employees are more likely to be influential, self-reliant individuals, who are committed to achieving the collective mission of an organization. The act of empowerment is, in essence, the belief that people don’t often need us to lead. Instead, they usually have everything they need within them to lead themselves.

It’s of no surprise that “empowering team members” was among 8 habits of highly effective Google managers. When managers empower their team members, it also creates a multiplier effect that often goes beyond those who report directly to you. It helps develop a culture of coaching and leadership excellence throughout the whole organization.

4. Compassionate Leadership

“Wise is he who sees himself in others and others in himself.” Dōgen

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn published an essay where he outlined why Compassionate Leadership is the preeminent approach in building companies. Compassionate Leadership simply means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world from their lens.

It’s very common for leaders to get occupied with the day-to-day tasks. An impactful leader doesn’t just focus on customers, but more importantly, focuses on people that serve their customers. Compassionate leaders realize that leading autocratically will not help them develop a good, reciprocal relationship with their team members, instead, they lead more empathetically. This does not mean that they are disinclined to make tough decisions for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It merely means that they are aware of, and take into consideration the impact of their decisions and actions on others.

They are self-aware and can sincerely evaluate their own actions, beliefs, and impact on others. We don’t often take the time to step back from our thoughts and reflect on the reality of the situations we are in, or how we are creating that reality. This is perhaps the hardest of all skills to accomplish as it is a process of reflection that takes place over the years.

5. Progression vs. Perfection

Many of the individuals I see are highly educated job seekers that have never worked in the United States and are now looking to work for Fortune 500 companies. As they start interviewing and get rejected multiple times, they begin to lose faith. I then ask them to reflect on each experience to learn something from it and gradually shift their focus from the end goal to the progress they’ve made. For example, at first they infrequently get past the first round of interviews, but after a few weeks, they constantly make it to the final rounds. Although they might not have received a job offer, but they are in a significantly better position compared to when they started. That subtle shift in their focus encourages them to be faithful and prepare better next time. It’s important to be very encouraging of the things they are doing right instead of their shortcomings. This will motivate them to do more.

We often see the perfectionist manager that frequently undermines our efforts and progress without being encouraging of the good work we do. The truth is, 57% of employees appreciate corrective feedback. So, it’s not that employees don’t want feedback; rather it’s how it is delivered that makes the difference. Instead of criticism, take the time to mentor your team and recognize any areas they may need help in. You should set ambitious goals for your team, but you should develop smaller milestones that can be frequently accomplished and celebrated. Recognize their contributions and appraise them for it. Studies have even shown that those who are recognized and provided some form of relationship are proven to be 77% more engaged and 81% feel more valued within the company.

In the past, intellectual horsepower was cherished as the key to profit. However, organizations are moving beyond information and intellect into a new operating reality, the “age of consciousness”. At this exciting frontier of competitive advantage, cultural capital and employee engagement are vital to organizational success. In this era, managers who help us feel unique, valued, confident, and above all, believe in our self, will be the most impactful. Instead of always chasing financial gains, take the time and talk to your team, ask how they are doing, and understand how you can help them be a better version of themselves.

VC, startup enthusiast, and mentor.

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