Throughout my life I have been fortunate enough to learn from and be inspired by a variety of mentors. As a junior high teacher fresh out of college, I was young, single and completely unsure of myself. A more senior teacher took me under her wing, showed me the ropes, and taught me the subtleties of office politics. Some years later, I joined State Farm as an agent. I was new to the insurance industry and to the corporate world—but, again, a more seasoned veteran took interest in me and offered encouragement, wise counsel, and, sometimes, crucial criticism.
Several years ago I became the executive sponsor for State Farm’s Hispanic Employee Resource Group. As I got to know the organization and became familiar with its members, I asked for a volunteer to mentor me and help me better understand the interests of our Hispanic employees, agents, and customers. That relationship continues today and has extended to include mentoring partnerships between many members of our executive leadership and employee resource groups.
Currently, I mentor a promising group of men and women from across our company. I consider these relationships an obligation and a privilege of leadership. The people I encounter shape my thinking more than I could ever hope to affect theirs. From them I have learned that mentoring is most successful when approached as a partnership. Switching roles as personal needs dictate is healthy, fulfilling, and enlightening.
Reverse mentoring relationships—particularly the partnership with a bright, energetic member of our Hispanic employee group—have allowed me to see the world through different eyes. Her insight and counsel have profoundly affected my leadership style and philosophy. When we sit down together,our differences fall away. Rank doesn’t apply. Nothing is out of bounds. We simply talk. And, in those moments, true exchange takes place.
My career has been enriched by the people I have encountered. I am blessed with a collection of relationships that brings me joy, friendship, and support. It is our relationships that heighten performance and make the workplace an engaging place to be. I have learned that relationships make a job into a career, co-workers into a family, and a company into a culture.
I’m not sure what happened to that junior high teacher who first took an interest in me. And I’m not sure I remember exactly what we talked about. But what I know for sure is that good leaders are good learners. And none of us can do it alone.