It might sound strange, but I fell into mentoring out of pure frustration.
I’m a technology geek. I just get it. I understand computer systems, programming, infrastructure, troubleshooting, the whole works. (I can bet some of you are already glazing over at the thought, but stick with me here.)
I inherited an interesting mix of staffers on my first official information technology job. There was a tattooed uncontrollable systems engineer, a very young girl (she looked 12) that worked the night shift in the call center, a helpdesk technician that spoke massively broken English and 600 beleaguered and belligerent users.
Despite it all, I was ecstatic. This was my first team and I was determined to help drive the most fabulous technology into the organization, show off my genius to the (male dominated) executive management team and make everyone’s life just a “push button” dream.
Uhhh….well. Reality check please! This was a fortune 50 company, and that my friends, comes with all the bureaucracy and political back stabbing, in-fighting and ladder climbing you could ever want. Instead of the “push button” dream I had created in my head, we were more like the Three Stooges, running frantically from place to place, bumping into each other and falling over our own feet.
One of our first major failures was when our phone switch went down. When a phone switch goes down for a large customer service call center, it’s a M-A-J-O-R event. Our technology was old, we didn’t have a contract and we were inexperienced.
Armed with the enormous phone switch technical manual, and a six-pack of diet Pepsi, I grabbed the call center girl, Lisa, shoved her into the switch room and locked the door. (I locked the door so the restless natives couldn’t get in, not so Lisa couldn’t get out!) I looked at the terrified Lisa and she looked at me. I said….”We can do this.”
We cracked open the book and went from page to page. I showed her how to troubleshoot. How to take the information you know and keep refining and adding on until we hit the issue. In the comfort of that switch room, she engaged. She was sharp and got it. She kept asking questions, making me think and I asked her questions, making her think. Together, we narrowed in, found the problem and solved it.
When we walked out of the switch room exhausted but pleased, Lisa was standing tall. That was the day I knew she had a spark and a burning intelligence that needed a comfortable environment in which to light the fire. She needed confidence.
For 5 years, I worked with Lisa to help her with systems administration, troubleshooting, switch programming and even switch installation. With every project, she gained confidence and was able to stand on her own a little more. She went from shy self-proclaimed “worker bee” to strategic project manager and engineer. I watched her go from hiding in the back of a room for a meeting to sitting at the table next to the big boys and holding her own in technology discussions.
Admittedly, there were a few moments along the way that I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her screaming “You are SMART, You are CAPABLE, you can DO THIS!” I would wonder why I would have to say it over and over again. Even though she knew it on the inside, she needed to hear it out loud.
Lisa is a professional Telecommunications Engineer today. She didn’t KNOW she could understand switch technology. She never thought she could. That’s where I was able to help. I showed her something she never thought she could do.
I never specifically set out to mentor Lisa, but just fell into it. In our male dominated environment I certainly never HAD a mentor so never really considered that it might be a good idea to BE one. But since my experience with Lisa, I truly value helping provide the confidence that allows someone to step into their zone of genius a little faster than they may have done otherwise.