A few years ago, Jay and Arlene, colleagues at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), were visiting Atlanta to scope out the city, conference center and surrounding hotels for an upcoming event. I’ve known Jay since my early career days. He has followed and supported my professional arc for over a decade. Arlene and I, on the other hand, didn’t know each other yet. Jay had reached out before their visit and asked if I had time to spend with them over dinner. I took them to a pizza place in Edgewood. Arlene and I were getting to know each other and she asked about my journey from India to the United States. Being at NAIS, she knew the dismal statistics of the dearth of minorities in leadership positions, particularly the lack of heads of color. She asked my age and wondered aloud if I knew what had made the difference for me and my rapid ascent to the job. I had, in fact, thought about it as it wasn’t the first time I had been asked that question by others. I gave my answer: “I collect mentors everywhere I go.”
I consider every interaction and introduction as an opportunity to learn from the person or team. The person doesn’t have to be someone older than me, in independent schools, or even a professional acquaintance or connection. I have professional or personal relationships in schools, nonprofits, businesses, startups, media and elsewhere that I value as learning opportunities. Many of those individuals are now friends. My success, whatever I’ve had so far, I credit to the countless emails, phone calls and in-person conversations over a meal or impromptu, that these individuals have offered selflessly and willingly each time I’ve reached out. Of course, not all of these conversations turn into relationships. A few are one-offs; a chance meeting somewhere, or an introduction by a mutual friend, colleague or acquaintance, that leaves me with something valuable to pursue later on.
Few are willing now to build such relationships and put in the necessary time and energy. Mentors will not seek you out and announce themselves as available and ready for you. You have to seek them out, see any conversation and opportunity as one to learn from and grow as a leader.
Jay too responded to Arlene’s question. He credited my persistence and tenacity for my rise to headship at age 32. I don’t see my response and Jay’s as mutually exclusive, though. Building a mentor-mentee relationship takes time, planning and discipline. It also requires shedding one’s ego and accepting that we all need and rely on our networks to do our jobs today. I tell my team at The Children’s School: There’s no extra credit for doing something on one’s own. What matters is execution; what matters is that we are moving forward.
How many mentors do you have? What’s your approach? What’s the key to your success?