Notes for my speech on October 15, 2019 at the Toastmasters Club Toast of Berkeley.
In order to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this story I changed their names and some detail.
Mentoring is a crucial part of helping a person to grow. We all benefit from having a mentor, and we can all be mentors. We need different types and style of mentoring at various stages of our life. At any age and professional level, a mentor can help us change our lives for the best.
We need different types and style of mentoring at various stages of our life.
Since I can remember, I have always looked for a mentor in my professional life. I was never lucky enough to find a colleague or a boss that could play that role in a long term perspective. I needed a competent and available person that can listen to my doubts and help me define and achieve my professional goals. I might have been too demanding or simply unlucky.
The qualities of a good mentor
As an exercise, I listed the qualities a good mentor should have to be accepted by a rebellious and stubborn person like me:
- Trustworthiness: I like people who are credible, not hypocritical, and consistent. A mentor is someone that I can fully trust.
- Role Model: Someone I admire and respect, a person that inspires me, that I perceive as wiser and possibly more skilled than me.
- Diversity. He/she can bring a different perspective to the discussion. I don’t learn from people that agree with me. I learn from people with different opinions and ideas, people available to a non-confrontational and positive discussion — people who can influence my future actions.
- Honesty: I’m not looking for perfection in a mentor. I strongly admire honest people who can admit their failures and learn from their mistakes. Those are the people who can help me see my mistake without being judgemental.
I found myself many times on the opposite side of the mentor-protégé relationship. I helped many younger colleagues and employees to find their path and reach their goals.
One of the first protégé I remember was Marco, a student of mine at the University of Parma. The graduation day in Italy can be on a different day for each group of students. The candidate has to discuss a thesis in front of an academic committee to be graded. It’s a very formal event. For a mechanical engineering degree, preparing the thesis can require up to one year of hard work.
The day Marco was going to graduate, the graduation event was scheduled for 10 am. The same morning, at 8 am it started to rain heavily, it was pouring. I knew Marco didn’t own a car, just a motorbike. He was also living alone, having lost his parents a few years earlier. I started to worry. Fifteen minutes before the event’s start, Marco appears on his motorbike in front of my office, dressed in an elegant suit, but completely soaked because of the rain. I told him he could not show up at graduation in those conditions. We had to find a solution quickly! I gave him my suit, and I put on a pair of jeans and an old sweater I used to keep at the office for an emergency. We left for the graduation event. Marco went to the microphone at the center of the room, ready to start his dissertation. I joined the academic committee desk. Immediately an old professor came to me complaining about my casual dress style. He started pointing at the elegant suit Marco was wearing as an example of how people should dress for this kind of formal event. I apologized profusely to the grumpy old professor, while inside me, I was smiling, and I was very proud of what I just did.
I still have a great relationship with Marco and all other protégé I met in my life, even several years after we stop working together or in the same organization. When I think about them, I’m proud of them. I was among the first to see their potential, and to believe in them. All of them are now enjoying very successful careers; they all work for great companies. One of them is now a full professor at the Italian University. About once a year, I like to talk to each of them on Skype or the phone. When one of them comes to San Francisco for a professional or academic event, we always go out for dinner. They like to share their achievements with me and tease me by making connections between what they are professionally doing now and what we were doing together at the University of Parma on similar topics.
They don’t need me anymore, but it’s always a real pleasure to see or talk to them, their success makes me happy and proud. I’m sure they have their own protégé, and they are continuing what I started.