What Toastmasters Taught Me About Mentoring

This is the next post in this series for my Toastmasters assignment – Write a Compelling Blog.  (You can read the other posts here.)  In today’s post, I talk about a lesson I’ve learnt about helping others.

Lesson No 6

Mentoring is Empowering

It is almost impossible to believe that before I joined Toastmasters (just over nine years ago) I didn’t fully comprehend what ‘mentoring’ was.

I’d had a mentor before, in a job I had half a lifetime ago.  This lady would ask me to come into her office to ‘have a chat’.  And that’s about all we did – chat.  She’d ask how I was?  How work was going?  Was I ok with the duties I was assigned?  And did I have any questions?  My responses were the standard – I’m ok.  Work’s ok.  I’m ok with what I’m doing.  And (my favourite) No!  And that was about the size of that.

These conversations happened three or four times for a year after I’d indicated I’d like to be considered for ‘higher duties’.  At the end of that year,  I was passed over for a promotion that everyone thought I would get and I continued to stagnate in my job.

However, I must add, being unprepared for the interview was what let me down, caused me to question what I was doing with/in my career, and propelled me towards applying for another promotion in another department.  My ‘mentor’ was on leave at this time and had asked someone else ‘look after me’ during her absence.

Person No 2 couldn’t have been more dissimilar from Person No 1.

She took the time to prise information out of me by asking more interesting questions and actually showed interest in me as a person – not just an employee.  Her most intriguing question was “What will you do if you get this promotion?”  And I responded: “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

She then proceeded to give me advice on the interview process, the makeup of an interview panel, what they would be looking for in a successful applicant, and how best to prepare and present myself.  She read my application and offered suggestions for improvement, guided me towards developing strong evidence against the selection criteria, and through the entire interview process that extended across several weeks, she touched base with me every couple of days to ask how I was and if I’d heard anything.

I got that promotion, crossed that bridge, and never looked back.

Lynda did for me what Carol couldn’t and when I thanked her for helping me get that promotion she said, “I didn’t help you, you helped yourself.”  Powerful words indeed.

But she did help me.  She helped me believe in myself, in my abilities and in my own self-worth.  She helped me stand tall and hold my head high.  She guided me in the right direction at a time of uncertainty when I was floundering amid the unknown.  She shared her knowledge and skills with me, guiding me towards my own potential.

That was more than 25 years ago and although I’ve had several jobs since that big promotion I was seeking, I’ve not really had much involvement with mentoring since – until I joined Toastmasters.

For many, joining Toastmasters is a daunting step into a territory constructed entirely of fear.  Most people join because they want to be able to speak in front of an audience.  Perhaps they are about to be a Best Man or they are the Father of the Bride or maybe even the Maid of Honour and they want to be able to deliver a speech at the wedding reception without stumbling, fumbling or falling.  I met one lady who joined because she was following her faith and wanted to deliver her sermons more eloquently.  I also met a member who joined because he was petrified of his boss asked him a direct question during a meeting of his peers.

To paraphrase Jerry Seinfield:

Most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

People join Toastmasters to overcome that type of fear and the first thing we ask them to do is . . .

Wait for it . . .

. . . stand up and speak in front of an audience.

Ok, we’re not that cruel, because this is where mentoring comes in.

Most clubs have a dedicated New Member Mentor to onboard those who are new to the organisation.  They smooth the path ahead and ensure the new member is comfortable with ‘everything’ and ready to take that leap into ‘public speaking’ in a safe environment.  In some (probably most) circumstances that first speaking opportunity might only be for two minutes.  But the point I’m trying to make here is that it’s all up to the member – they work at their own pace and when they’re ready.

The new member would then be assigned a (personal) mentor to assist them with their meeting assignments – speaking or otherwise – and this mentor would then continue working with them (the new member) until they reach a certain level of achievement or confidence.  It’s not to say that this is where the relationship ends either.  For many, it isn’t.  But more often than not, members start to ‘stand on their own two feet’ and lean less and less towards their mentors and, just like baby chics, they leave the nest and branch out on their own.

At this stage, something wonderful happens.

Members then seek out mentors for specific needs.

Personally, I have one mentor who assists me with polishing my speeches and another who guides me through the leadership labyrinth.  I have another I go to simply to talk things over and finally another who helps me understand the organisations’ protocols/rules of conduct.  (This proved to be an invaluable relationship when I was involved in starting a new club.)

However, I’m not just a mentee, I’m also a mentor.

When I won a speech contest two years ago and became a District Champion, a remarkable transformation occurred that was almost palpable.  This also coincided with me attaining my Distinguished Toastmaster award (the highest level of educational recognition Toastmasters International bestows upon a member, and the metamorphosis was complete.  Suddenly members started seeking me to assist them with their speeches.

I was flabbergasted.  Me?  What did I know?  How could I possibly help?  Self-doubt is a horrible thing because at the end of the day, of course, I could help someone else prepare/polish their speech.  I’d already trod down that road and had (first hand) experience to draw on and share.  My own journey has given me the knowledge, skills and experience to help guide someone else towards reaching their full potential and I often find myself saying “Of course, I can ‘be your mentor”.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never thought of myself as a mentor and I might wonder how I came to be a sort after ‘expert’, and yet, when I see those I help becoming stronger, more confident, and achieving their goals, I am so proud and honoured to be part of someone else’s journey – and my own self-doubts disappear.

Yes, mentoring is empowering.  It’s a rewarding, shared discovery.

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