This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
The best training you can possibly have to become an effective mentor is to be the beneficiary of mentoring yourself. This provides insight on what is effective as well as what you would do differently as you add your own style, personality, and strengths to the role.
I have had the honour of being a part of the Paralympic movement for the past 15 years. I have competed in three Paralympic Games and multiple other international competitions. I retired as an athlete in 2010 with 19 Paralympic medals, thanks in large part to the mentors I had along the way. These mentors helped shape my thinking; they influenced how I approached challenges to overcome barriers, and taught me how to think critically and ask the right questions.
Today, as assistant Chef de Mission for the TO2015 Parapan American Games, I find myself in the role of mentor. I have the wonderful opportunity and platform to help promote Canada's top athletes and raise awareness of inclusive, accessible and Paralympic sport in this country. But as a leader and mentor, my main focus is on building the best support team and creating an optimal environment of success for our Canadian athletes.
To do this I am relying on skills that I have learned over the years – skills that are just as relevant in a boardroom as they are in the sporting arena. Here are three tips I picked up along the way about how being a good mentor can help position you and your team for success:
The "board of directors for your life"
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started competing was trying to rely too heavily on one individual mentor. I expected them to have all the answers and to be able to always point me in the right direction to avoid making costly mistakes. But, just as a business operates best when there are clearly defined executive functions, in which everybody's expertise is considered before a consensus is reached, people also operate best when they seek out diverse perspectives, ideas and personalities to help light their own path in the office and in life.
As a mentor, don't put too much pressure on yourself to provide your team with all the answers – because you don't have them. And as a leader, you should still be seeking the input of mentors in your professional and personal life because there is always more to learn.
Think of it as a "board of directors for your life." A great example of this approach at work is CIBC Team Next, a program that I am part of that supports 67 Canadian amateur athletes, many of whom participated, or are participating in the Pan and Parapan American games in Toronto.
In addition to essential financial assistance, what the program does well is set up the athletes with a full complement of mentors. Each athlete is paired with one of Canada's top athletes (past, or present) that they can lean on for advice and guidance. They are also given access to experts that help them learn how to manage their finances, advice on nutrition, how to seek out sponsorships and build their personal brands, access to sport physiologists, and more. This Board of Directors approach respects that an athlete's path to success involves more than physical training. The results speak for themselves; CIBC Team Next athletes at the Pan Am Games won a staggering 30 medals, citing access to mentors as a major factor in their success.
Those who can, let others learn for themselves
A mistake I made when I first became a mentor was trying too hard to share my wisdom and experience. What I quickly learned is that trying to simply give people the answers robs them of the learning experience.
This is tricky, because it requires patience, which is sometimes not in high supply in a fast-paced and often unforgiving business world, but it is essential.
True mentorship is about teaching others to ask the right questions, challenging their assumptions and creating an environment in which they can discover the answers on their own, even if it means watching them fall down once in a while.
I was born missing my right leg and hip, but that didn't stop me from trying to keep up with all the kids in the playground. My parents literally watched me fall, but along with the other mentors in my life ensured that I was always in an environment where I could pick myself up, shake off the dust, figure out what went wrong and try again with a new approach.
Mentors don't need to be perfect
The mentors that I have learned the most from were the most authentic. Like the rest of us, they are flawed human beings that make mistakes. Those who could admit that they didn't have all the answers were the most helpful. Their lack of arrogance (not to be confused with a lack of confidence) always made them more approachable and easier to relate to, which means more effective leaders to learn from. Often, this led to a discussion and a shared journey, figuring things out together. I felt safe, supported, and encouraged as I tried new things and elevated myself to a new level.
Being a good mentor also means letting your mentees know that they are not expected to be perfect. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a mentor was to be gentle and forgiving with myself. We work so hard to support other people in life and in business, but we can be so hard on ourselves.
Help people understand that they will make mistakes – encourage it – as long as they learn from those mistakes and trust themselves to apply the lessons they have learned.
As I take these lessons into my business career, I am constantly amazed at how transferable experiences can be. What I learned from sport is relevant to the business world. What has amazed me the most in my new role as a mentor is that seeing other people reach their potential is just as rewarding and moving as stepping onto the podium myself.
Stephanie Dixon is a 19-time Paralympic medalist, CIBC Team Next mentor and Canada's assistant Chef de Mission for the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games.