When You Give, You Get. The Power of Mentoring

By Elena Elkina

Did you know that the word “mentoring” originates from the ancient Greek language?

Image Source: Wikipedia

Mentor was the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus, King of Ithaca, fights in the Trojan War, he entrusts his son Telemachus to an old man and a loyal advisor called Mentor. After the war, a grown Telemachus goes to search for his father. Athena, Goddess of War and patroness of the arts, assumes the form of Mentor and accompanies Telemachus on his difficult quest until he and his father are reunited.

The word “mentorship” has evolved since then. It is typically defined as a trusted relationship where a senior professional assists a less experienced person in professional and personal growth. Nowadays, while the concept of mentorship remains the same, it means different things to different people. To me, mentorship means being present for someone else, recognizing her needs and wants, and empowering her to step outside of her comfort zone.  

I am a Co-founder and Vice Chair for Women in Security and Privacy (WISP). At WISP, we believe that knowledge is fluent and leadership manifests at every career level. Even the most experienced and confident professional can use good advice, so WISP redefined mentorship.

Thanks to another WISP Co-founder and Secretary, Anna Vaccari, we designed WISP Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Program - Tandem.

WISP Tandem encourages women in security and privacy to solve problems, liberate imagination, and build the momentum we need to co-create the best in each other.

I do not think most people realize how much they have to offer another person, because we get caught up on age, gender and race differences instead. Do not be afraid to start mentoring someone because you think you don’t have enough to offer. Right now is the perfect time!

I’ve been asked frequently about how to find a mentor as many people struggle in their approach to finding a mentor and end up being either disappointed or confused. In my professional career, I was honored to mentor and be mentored by extraordinary people. I’ve been part of formal mentorship programs, but non-traditional mentoring relationships are the ones that made the most significant impact on my career.

One of my extraordinary non-traditional mentors is Chris Hoofnagle, my former Professor at Berkeley Law School where I did my LL.M program. Taking Professor Hoofnagle’s Information Privacy Law class reinforced my passion and dedication to privacy. Chris and I did not have a formal mentor-mentee relationship, but his passion and knowledge about privacy, dedication to his students, and desire to invest in me provided me with constant support, guidance and inspiration to know more about the privacy industry and opportunities.

While I was in law school, Chris encouraged me to apply for the International Association Privacy Professionals (IAPP) scholarship program. When I got in, one of the perks was a ticket to my first IAPP conference in Washington, D.C. where Chris introduced me to other privacy experts. My first IAPP conference experience was overwhelming, but life changing. I met Chief Privacy Officers, Privacy Attorneys, Analysts and Engineers who showed me that privacy is a more granular and diverse discipline than I thought it was, based on my prior privacy work.

Chris also helped me to explore my skills and how to best use them in my career. He recommended me for a privacy job that I did not believe I had sufficient qualifications for by encouraging me to stretch my wings. He assured me that I would do a great job and supported me every step of the way. That job was paramount to my privacy career.

I made professional and personal connections that I still have today, including my close friends and exceptional privacy scholars Kenesa Ahmad and Alya Genaro, who are my business partners in privacy and data protection firm Aleada Consulting, and co-founders of Women in Security and Privacy. All of this happened because Chris’ support and encouragement allowed me to push myself out of my comfort zone and find the kind of privacy work I wanted to do in the world of endless opportunities.

The lesson I learned from this experience is: do not be afraid to get on the radar of people you admire at work, school, community or neighborhood, even if they are strangers. Learn more about their work and interests, follow them on social media and comment on their articles, attend their webinars, or invite them for a cup of coffee to share your insightful ideas that their work inspired.

Be creative with your approach and always think about what you can offer, even to a more senior person than you. Most mentors agree that they get almost as much out of the mentoring relationship as the mentee. Also, you do not need to have a formal mentor to benefit; most successful mentoring relationships happen naturally.

Stop thinking about mentorship as something you get, and think about it as something you do.

Mentoring has become an important part of not only our individual lives, but also our business communities. Have you ever noticed that when people get to know each other they create a momentum that builds a resilient community? In her TED Talk “Forget about pecking order at work,” Margaret Heffernan says that teams who work together longer tend to work better and are more successful. Do you know why? When work gets hard, and it typically does, people need support and need to know how to get help. Trust and loyalty are the most powerful motivators that drive people, which in turn builds a resilient community and gives the company momentum.

There are more and more companies that support this work environment and encourage team mentorship that brings out the best in employees. One of my favorite teams that exemplifies this behavior is the Information Security Risk and Control team at Autodesk. Chris Holder (CISO) and Ahsan Mir (Director of Information Security) do an outstanding job of bringing out the best in everyone on their team.

When you observe their team, you see candor, ingenuity and creativity. But the most interesting fact is that you do not see superstars because everyone is a star, everyone is extraordinary with endless possibilities to learn and to teach. They provide subject matter and leadership training to everyone on their team despite anyone’s seniority. Bringing out the best in others helps Autodesk’s security team be successful.

I want to share a few of the most helpful resources and tips that I’ve collected during the last year. Remember, don’t be stuck on formalized mentorship as there are numerous non-traditional ways that are open for you:

  • Find people you admire in life or on LinkedIn, Twitter or other social media channels and follow them. You never know how this relationship turns out.

  • Learn from people even when they aren’t “teaching” you. For example, when you go about your day, do you notice anything about the barista where you get your coffee? Is she kind and calm with her customers? Does it change your experience and make you feel better? On the other hand, do you have a colleague who makes your blood boil? Ask yourself why she makes you feel this way, because there is a chance that you might share the same quality. Or when you meet a person you dislike and you notice that she has the same qualities as you (i.e., expertise, drive, passion, etc.), you might consider her a threat competition instead of simply admiring her. The point is, if you are aware, you can manage your feelings and take charge to become the person you want to be.

  • TED Talks are short talks (18 minutes or less) about technology, business, entertainment, design, education, politics, environment, etc. by global experts, leaders and entrepreneurs. In addition to TED Talks that you can watch online, you can attend and/or present at TED Conferences that happen worldwide. Here are a few of my favorite TED talks:

  • Do not be afraid of networking. Look at it as a journey in which you never know who will show up and where the path will lead you. When talking to people, find one thing that connects you, and then learn what the person does and how you can help them. Offer your unique voice, perspective and experience. Build your professional network of mentors. One of the programs that I particularly enjoyed was a nine-month WILpower program provided by a nonprofit organization called Leading Women in Technology (LWT). Participating in this program helped me meet other like-minded women and develop the knowledge, skills and connections to grow professionally and personally.

After I completed my WILpower program, I was inspired to give back to the community and LWT offered me a seat on the Board of Directors where I currently serve. Every year I see junior and senior women going through their personal and professional transformation – and you can be next! Search for mentoring programs in your area. If you cannot afford them, do not give up. Message them directly and ask about scholarships or offer to volunteer in exchange for a ticket.

  • Learn how to trust your skills and mentor yourself. The answers to your questions aren’t as far as they seem; often, they are right inside of you. Take a self-assessment test (i.e., DiSC, Myers-Briggs, Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator) to discover your superpowers! At the end of the day, all feedback is appreciated, but not all feedback is valid. Make an effort to get to know your real self and what fires you up. This will also help with finding the right mentor.

And finally, here are a few basic things you can do to prepare yourself for a mentoring relationship:

  • List your qualities, strengths and things you enjoy doing and why.

  • Identify your weaknesses, gaps and things you would love to learn.

  • Think about what you want from a mentor: are you looking for help with your weakness, need a career change or looking for a sounding board?

  • Define your communication style and preference. Are you looking for a mentor who has a similar or opposite communication style, and why?

  • Is there a specific industry or company you would like to learn more about? If so, list specific things that you would like to learn and why.

  • Search your LinkedIn contacts (and other social media channels) to see if you already know someone who might be able to help. Then start following them on social media to learn more about them and what they do.

  • After you learn more about them, start commenting on their articles, ask questions, and try to develop a rapport. I am not a big fan of asking the question “Can you be my mentor?” but it might work for you. My approach is to develop a relationship naturally because this is the kind of relationship that sticks.

  • If you decide to ask someone to be your mentor and this person refuses, do not take it personally. Thank them for their consideration and move on.  

  • Mentors are like friends: do not stick with just one mentor for all your needs. Develop a few mentoring relationships for different professional and personal goals (i.e. career, financial stability, physical training, health, public speaking, board opportunities, etc.).

  • Don’t become dependent on your mentor and do not be afraid to think differently. However, always show your gratitude and professionalism.

  • Lastly, here are a few other tips to consider.

Remember, start before you are ready. Despite where you are on your own mentorship path, follow my friend and colleague Joanna Bloor’s advice, “Be brave, be curious.” Whether it is at a distance, one-on-one, or in a structured way, we all have something to give. And when you give, you get.

Good luck and feel free to reach out to me if you need help!


About Elena Elkina

Elena Elkina is a Sr. Privacy and Data Protection Expert. She is a Co-founder and Partner at Aleada Consulting, where she advises clients on privacy, data protection and information security issues. Elena is known for her entrepreneurial approach to driving business performance while protecting information and serving as a trusted adviser for her clients.

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