Mentoring denotes a wide range of relationships, including sponsorship, advocacy, a formalized buddy system, and a strong commitment to a subordinate’s career growth. But in my experience, a mentor is that individual who can be depended upon to share personal insights, lessons learned tied to mistakes, and even to assume some career risk in sponsoring a protégé for high-visibility, high-reward assignments.

In my own case, mentoring started early. I was raised in a household of mavericks—individuals who chronically challenged conventional wisdom. My mother was a beacon in that regard. A world-renowned Japanese linguist, she showed me firsthand the strength that comes from displaying professional commitments alongside personal convictions. On numerous occasions when our school calendars permitted, she demanded that her children be allowed to accompany her on
business trips so that her absences did not come at too high a personal cost.

My first personal and external mentor was a family friend and television producer who encouraged me to take risks and question the assertion “this is the way it’s done.” Tragically, he died at a young age, but his words of advice still resonate in the decisions I make today.

I should point out that a good mentoring relationship is not always comfortable. The mentor’s job is to stretch the mentee: to provide constructive criticism and to intervene if the protégé slips up. Skilled mentors know when their protégé needs help, even when the protégé doesn’t, because they’ve had similar experiences.

A case in point would be my first professional mentor, my manager at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company. He was a risk-taker and stretched my comfort zone with almost maddening frequency. I recall his request that I make a presentation to the chairman at the ripe young age of 23. Surely, I asserted, I wasn’t experienced enough to venture into the hallowed board room of Morgan Guaranty Trust Company; yet my mentor primed me for success with his vast professional experience, good humor, and uncompromising faith in my ability to deliver. In short, he helped me get out of my own way.

These positive experiences with mentoring have made me even more committed to mentoring others. The benefits of a few minutes of well-timed mentoring have legs; these benefits are long-lasting and far-reaching. In the final analysis, what makes a mentoring relationship so compelling is that it introduces the idea of personal sponsorship into an inherently impersonal system. As a result, the act of mentoring can be as rich and varied as the individuals involved.