• John Senseney

A few thoughts on mentorship



I recently had coffee with a former mentor and it made me reflect on the mentor and mentee relationships I’ve experienced. Years ago, when I was first building a team, one of the most influential mentors in my life advised me to “not be afraid to hire people who are smarter and more talented than you.” As I look around Notion – which has gained more than half a dozen employees in the last few months – I am struck by how valuable his advice has been. Among the many lessons learned through numerous mentor/mentee relationships, I’ve grown to value and practice being a good steward of the people who entrust their career growth to me and our organization.


Every individual – no matter their experience or level – deserves a mentoring engagement with a personal touch. I never sought to be a mentor, but it has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences in my career. My style is a walls-down, candid, no-bad-questions asked type of relationship that goes beyond individual goals, networking opportunities and friendships. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to someone’s professional journey and hope to offer a positive experience.


As I reflect on mentoring, here are three themes that stand out.


1. Ask what you can do to help.

I urge you to challenge the stereotypical mentor/mentee dynamics and hierarchy. Because both parties have a lot more to gain in a mutually respectful relationship built on trust. If you’ve hired people who possess unique strengths, lean into their knowledge. You may be surprised by how they show up and what you might learn. If you are seeking mentorship, think about your strengths and don’t be afraid to ask what you might be able to offer in the engagement.


When I was a mid-level manager, I thrived when my mentor leaned on me for input. From my position, I could observe workplace dynamics, morale or cultural nuances beyond the work, and I was encouraged to share insights and recommendations for the team. I felt valued and recognized for offering a point of view and for sharing different perspectives. I appreciated that my mentor cared, listened and was open to growing with me. It showed that I had earned a level of trust from someone I respected, and it was a huge boost of confidence.

In each touchpoint with your mentor/mentee, ask yourself, “What can I do to help?” You might be amazed at how productive and rewarding that conversation can be.


2. Embrace your differences.

It’s often our differences that enhance relationships because it encourages us to re-think to grow. Remember that your mentor once had (and may still have) mentors who influence their approach and behaviors. As business trends and professionals evolve, leaders and mentors also adapt – and there’s opportunities for new growth and unlearning old habits.


I once had a mentor who admitted that soft skills weren’t his strength and leaned on me for having a diverse mindset, human-centric approach and levity in the workplace. It was never his expectation that I would or should become like him, and that was a gift. He recognized and harnessed my character, while teaching me how to be effective in my role.


To quote Adam Grant, an expert in organizational psychology and author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know, “We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions. Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics and make themselves weaker. This reaction isn’t limited to people in power.” So as a leader and mentor, I put ego and presumption aside and try to listen with an open mind. Yes, it can be hard, but it’s worth it – and it is necessary, because that’s how we grow.


In fact, I expect our team at Notion to challenge the status quo with a strong business case or rationale. It’s hard to teach critical thinking, but diversity of experience and knowledge are often catalysts to new and better ideas. We should embrace our differences and give our colleagues permission to challenge each other, regardless of hierarchy or department. It is one more way of creating a rich and fulfilling environment where ideas can flourish.


3. Be invested and genuine.

Like any human relationship, the mentor/mentee dynamic must not feel like an obligation or an organizational formality. Rather, form natural and genuine connections and invest your time for individuals you want to mentor – whether they are in your organization, industry or network. Regardless of where you find these bonds, always be respectful, keep an open mind and be patient.


If you’re a mentee, show up on time, be prepared with specific questions and actively listen. And if you find an opportunity, offer any support that might help your mentor. These actions will go a long way to show that you’re dedicated, have a desired to grow and respect their time.


If you’re a mentor, try to lead by example and avoid creating unrealistic internalized expectations. Be sincere and invest in their success. You are likely mentoring a future leader, so engage with purpose, share your wisdom and offer guidance. Also, think about the people who may see you as their mentor, whether they’ve formally called you one or not. If you are a new leader, remember that some of the people you manage are absorbing more from you than the day-to-day tasks.


Finally, remember to say thank you to each other because these relationships matter – and you are likely genuinely grateful. Pausing to express gratitude can create a lasting impression. While career paths may change, if you engage with the spirit of being a good steward of the people who have helped you, you will likely find that the time and energy invested in the relationship will have a multiplying effect and possibly a life-long impact.


Article was originally published on LinkedIn.


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