Mentorship, Skiing and Russell Westbrook

This is a story about skiing. But it’s actually a story about mentorship and stepping outside your comfort zone.

It started as an invite from my friend Claire and a few of her friends to go with them on a weekend ski trip to Sundance, UT. My response via text: “You know I’ve never skied, right? And the one time I went snowboarding, I hated it so much I haven’t tried it since.” I didn’t mention that this sad attempt was over 10 years ago. Nor that I’m afraid of heights and fast speeds (when not inside a vehicle).

I agreed to go. Why? Well, Claire is my mentor, and I jump at any chance to spend more time with her. So a whole weekend? What an opportunity. So what if 99% of the time we hung out together was of the food/drink/coffee variety?

On the drive up to Sundance from the airport, she asked me the all-important question: skiing or snowboarding. Knowing that “neither” would get me thrown out of the car, I reluctantly went with skiing. Claire proceeded to coach me on some pointers and then went into a pep talk about the need to commit, using Russell Westbrook, point guard for the Oklahoma Thunder, as an example.

Have you ever seen him play? I probably had, but couldn’t recall him specifically.

NBA players are among the most athletic of pro athletes, but it’s a demanding sport so even the best players can go all-out maybe 70% of the time. Russell Westbrook goes 100% every time, even for games that don’t matter. She went on to elaborate more on his intensity, rise to success, and how fun it is to watch him.

I appreciate a good sports metaphor. And Claire regularly dishes out great ones for every aspect of work and life. These little nuggets of wisdom always make me think, but I didn’t really understand how to apply the ‘commit’ advice until I was out on the slopes for at least an hour, learning how to snowplow while going downhill, and especially getting off the ski lift without falling (a scarily public undertaking).

Quick side note to preface what happens next: One of the staffers at my spin studio describes a tough instructor as someone who “tricks you into working really hard.” This is what Claire did, but by getting me to combat fear instead of physical exhaustion. She seemed to have an innate sense of how much she could push me: whether it was with assertive instruction, encouraging words at the right moment, or a well-timed compliment.

To illustrate my experience, that first day of skiing, my internal dialogue went something like this:

“Since I’m here at Sundance, I should make a minimum attempt to appear like I’m giving it a shot. I’ll put on gear and get into my skis. I’ll give it an hour then call it a day.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing but I guess I’ll go a few feet up this bunny slope to practice the basics.”

“I’ll go up a little higher. That way I’ll have more area to practice.”

“Well, why don’t I go ahead all the way to the top? I’m already unclipping and clipping in and climbing up with my ski gear anyway.”

“Fine, I’ll try the lift. I won’t look down. Plus, I’m tired of hauling all my gear up that damn hill.”

“Wow – I can’t believe I got down that trail myself. What a rush!”

sundance

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The foundation of a mentorship is of course professional respect and admiration. Claire can be the prototype of this.

 

As a seasoned product manager who is also a developer and serial startup founder, Claire’s business and marketing acumen are off the charts. She’s incredibly knowledgeable in many areas, and I learn something every time we hang out. She has taught me about the fundamentals of development, various technologies and coding frameworks, UX concepts, analytics, and the business of startups.

Traits I admire about my mentor:

  • She’s a natural leader and teacher (did I mention she coaches girls’ basketball?). She adapts to her student. In my case, she gives just enough instruction, then backs off and lets me figure it out.
  • She has an incredible work ethic.
  • Her work, even if they’re wireframes for the internal dev team, is unshakably high quality.
  • She tells me things I need to hear but is still judicious with criticism.
  • She’s humble yet confident.
  • She’s direct and decisive.

I can’t put a price on the strides she’s helped me make with professional and personal development, such as:

  • Taking calculated risks
  • Leading and influencing
  • Handling confrontation (still working on this one)
  • Advocating for myself or things I believe in
  • Not stressing the small stuff

One valuable takeaway from our relationship is that it’s okay to be a generalist. For many years, I’d struggled with the fact that my career path was a long, meandering journey. Since all career advice out there stressed the need to focus, I felt disadvantaged to not have built one specialty. With Claire, I now know an example of a generalist in the best way. I’ve seen firsthand how she deftly draws from her areas of expertise, using all these abilities to her advantage. And seeing the way she continues to lead, grow, and develop, is inspirational and affirming.

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Do I have advice for those seeking out mentors?

It’s important to have a mentor at work. A few things I’ve learned:

  • Recognize senior teammates or leaders who are already actively looking out for you and reaching out to you. They are obvious potential mentors.
  • As a mentee, the responsibility to engage is on you. Reach out and put in consistent time and effort.
  • Be considerate of your mentor’s (and your own) time; have some objectives or questions in mind before you meet. And think of ways you can help them. Like any relationship, it’s a two-way street.

You can also find mentors outside of work, in unexpected places. Consider people with whom you’re already close. They most likely already advise and coach you in ways you don’t even realize. I’ve been mentored by most of my friends and family, even coaches.

I am fortunate to have a few mentor relationships here at Blueprint, most of which have developed organically. They’ve ranged from general career coaching to more technical and knowledge-based advice – all have been invaluable. With the launch of our new program, it will be fun to see the power of mentorship amplified.

 

Now, getting back to skiing. I went into that trip with some trepidation and the result: I leapt way outside my comfort zone and conquered a long-held fear (and had fun!) I would have never tried skiing if it had not been for my mentor’s influence. I needed someone to nudge me into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and Claire was the right person for the job. I’m lucky to have a mentor who knows me well enough to gauge what I’m capable of, even when I don’t realize it, and give a push when needed (including in the literal sense, like off the ski lift for the first time).

There’s so much more to talk about mentorship – it’s one of my favorite topics.

Do you have a mentor (or mentee) who inspires you?


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