The Influence of a Mentor

Mentoring is the sharing of one’s knowledge, skills, expertise, experience, etc. for the benefit of another. Mentors can play a crucial role in a person’s career. They can offer advice on tasks particular to a job, help someone navigate an organization, and even give general career advice. Mentorship has played an important role in my career.

In the early 1970’s, I was an accountant at a family-owned company which was just starting to get into computers and financial systems. Computers really fascinated me, so when a recruiter contacted me about being a financial systems analyst in the IT department of Fisher-Price (now a subsidiary of Mattel), I jumped at the opportunity. At this point in my life, I had never heard of the term Project Manager (PM), and PMI was in its infancy. Looking back, this was the beginning of my long road to becoming a PM at Fisher-Price. Fisher-Prices’ IT department was in overkill mode in every project phase when it came to documentation. Writing was a challenge for me—in high school and college I got mostly C’s on my English papers, and I really needed someone who could help foster these skills. I needed a mentor to help me succeed.

I was looking for someone who had experience, expertise, and wisdom—someone who was a good listener and was accessible. Fortunately, in my small group there was a senior systems analyst who had all of those qualities. His name was Art Gunther. Art and I had already started to build a friendly relationship through our weekly team lunches. So, after my first month at Fisher-Price, I asked Art if he would review some of my work (program specifications). Art turned out to be my divine helper, and over time, I began to really trust and respect him. He explained the “ins” and “outs” of projects and the day-to-day tasks of a PM, giving me the foundations to become a strong PM. By exposing me to new and different perspectives, he helped me turn my professional life around, all the while helping me with the writing side of things, too. One piece of advice Art gave that has stayed with me through the years was to “make reading and lifelong learning a part of my routine and part of my life.” I have spent the last forty years building a robust home library, and filled it with IT books that I often reference.

During my first year at Fisher-Price, I learned the COBOL language, which I then used when writing my programming specifications. This enabled our programmers to code directly from my specs. Looking back, I don’t know if the programmers thought I was making their job easier or if they were annoyed, as it left little room for creativity. Regardless, after two years of so much writing of documentation, I woke up one morning and realized, I liked doing it and was getting good at it. In fact, I wanted to write and be published, something I soon found out was no easy feat. Since leaving Fisher-Price, I have had the amazing fortune to have four books and over sixty articles (e.g., PMI’s magazine and MPUG) published on project management and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). None of this would have been possible without my first mentor, Art.

Later in my career and during the Y2K scare, I was assigned to a large project and became friends with one of the IBMers who was part of the PMO. I soon found out he didn’t understand much about project management or how to use Microsoft Project. Regardless, I liked him, and I wanted him and our project to be successful, I decided to mentor him on project management and how to use Microsoft Project. Looking back, he didn’t seem that interested, he wasn’t really processing the information I was presenting, and didn’t reciprocate in any way.

Weeks went by and I realized I had totally wasted my time. Why? He didn’t ask for mentoring because he thought he didn’t need it, and so I learned a lesson: don’t mentor someone that doesn’t acknowledge their need for it or request it. About three years later, I ran into Jim at an airport. We had about an hour to kill between flights, so we sat down to catch up on what we were doing. He told me he regretted that he hadn’t listened to my advice while I was trying to mentor him. He also bemoaned not being able to get a PMP certification. I was stunned. Since then, I have mentored a few co-workers successfully. In turn, I benefited from the satisfaction of helping others and it’s made me a better teacher.

Work is not solely about the products you produce, but also about the fulfillment you derive from it. Finding a mentor can enable you to reach your fullest potential as a producer, and becoming a mentor can enable you to help others find that same gratification. Additionally, mentoring has the potential to diminish stress and reduce burnout. It’s important to take time in different ways to support yourself and your mentees.

What are your thoughts on mentorship? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Written by Ronald Smith
Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication. From 2011 - 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks.
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1 Comment
  1. Interesting article and spot on regarding the impact of the mentee’s interest! I find reward in providing little pearls of wisdom when they are needed most. Often the mentee doesn’t even realize the assist! 😎

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