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January is National Mentoring Month. Although it’s a time to raise awareness about the importance of mentoring children, it is also an opportunity for business professionals to make a commitment to help their younger, less experienced colleagues.

This year I will mark 34 years with Bank of America. My first job was calling customers who were past due on their credit card payments. It taught me the importance of communication and understanding the customer experience. Now as a senior vice president and marketing sales manager, I look back and realize that job was critical to my career.

Of equal importance to my career have been the connections I’ve made through mentoring. I think I have made the most impact motivating and educating colleagues, associates, and clients. I have had many important mentors along my journey as well.  One of them taught me a very important lesson. She knew my passion for mentoring, and my tendency to think I can mentor any and every one. She told me to remember the words to the Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler”: “You’ve got to know to know when to hold ‘em, you got to know when to fold ‘em; Know when to walk away, know when to run.” The message was clear. A mentoring relationship is much more effective with employees who are invested enough in their own personal growth and for those who are not, it’s time to fold.

She asked me to write down the time I spent helping a particular person; then write down the time I thought this person was spending on his or her own professional development.  I keep that visual in my mind still today. Mentoring is a two-way street. You have to have a mentee willing to work as hard as you will.

On the other side, as a mentor you must have the right frame of mind. I challenge mentors to reflect on what it means to them, what’s their motivation? Is it to help others? Are your leaders tasking you with it? Is it to garner a better performance appraisal?  A colleague once asked me for advice regarding her mentoring experience.  Her supervisor was concerned that a young person my colleague was mentoring was not progressing. What I noticed was how many times she said, “I”.  She wasn’t really trying to help this new hire; she was hoping to advance her own career.  I became a more effective mentor when I took more interest in others’ success than my own. I realized that while the limelight is nice, I really wanted my team to be recognized. Mentorship is most effective once you are comfortable and accomplished in your own career.

I have also made it a professional priority of mine to mentor other women.  I encourage women to be more proactive in their career advancement. This is changing, but through the decades, I have noticed that while women will ponder why they haven’t received a promotion and not take action, their male colleagues will schedule a meeting with their supervisors to talk about why it’s time for them to move onto the next position. Many women, myself included, also tend to internalize and personalize comments. If a woman asks a question during a meeting and is told “let’s discuss it later,” she may worry about the response and call four colleagues to discuss it.  Her male colleague may not think twice about it. My strong advice to women is, if you can’t let it go and tend to over analyze comments then go ask about it. Follow up and move on.

The most challenging aspect of mentoring is the rare time when you have to tell a person they are not meant for a particular position. Not every role, culture or business is right for everyone. When the alarm goes off, are you excited or just going to a job?  If the latter, then it’s time to dig deep to discover your passion.

I had an associate I was mentoring who admitted she took this job because she needed a certain amount of money after her divorce. We discussed her talents and what she wanted to do. She decided to go back to school to be a teacher and thanked me. My overarching role is to keep talent in the bank, but sometimes the conversation needs to be about the right place for the person.

I am often asked why I mentor and why I find it so fulfilling. I am proud of my own professional awards and recognitions, but what I really want to remember are the individuals I counseled who achieved the positions, promotions and accomplishments they never thought possible.  I recently went to a network event and a woman I worked with a long time ago told me I was her first mentor and I really pushed her to realize her capabilities. She told me she thought about my advice all the time. That is what it’s all about for me.

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