That experience taught me loads, including how the other people in the (class)room will always see you differently from how you see yourself; and how I could never stop running in the corridors.
But as I’ve grown in experience as a leader, there’s another thing I learned early on as a teacher that I reflect on more and more: “You never really understand something until you try and teach it to someone else.”
That’s why mentoring – doing it, not just receiving it – has become an increasingly large and valuable part of my working life.
The benefits of having a mentor are, I hope, pretty obvious. Like having some time in the busy, deadline-driven, always-on work environment to stop and think about yourself. To ponder “what do I really want to be doing?” and “what makes me happy and fulfilled?” as well as “what am I good at, and how can I use those qualities even better in future?” To get tips, guidance and insight from people who’ve trodden the leadership path before you and to benefit from their expertise and experience. And to express ideas, thoughts and doubts in a completely safe and supportive space.
All of that is absolute gold dust. And it’s why I seek out opportunities to learn from the pioneering women who blazed a trail before me and my incredibly wise and talented peers within Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership (WACL). But what I’ve come to realise from mentoring the next generation of female talent is that being the mentor teaches me just as much as being a mentee does.
Of course, a mentor should always approach any session with a giving mindset. It’s all about the mentee, it’s not about you. Your role is to listen actively, to be led by them, to use your experience to guide, explore and help your mentee in the way that works best for them. But it’s also true that giving time and thought and space to these emerging female leaders gives me so much in return.
And not just the things some people might expect – like what’s good on TikTok right now, or whether they are really giving an unfiltered version of their lives through their BeReal activity.
Just like it was for me as a teacher or a parent, really listening to and talking with people who haven’t been on the planet as many years as I have, helps me think about all kinds of things in new ways. When I was teaching and a parent of young children, that often meant questions like: how to tie your shoelaces; or whether flowers get sad when they’re cut; or why Hamlet says “to kill a king and marry with his brother”. And interestingly, helping answer those questions taught me important leadership lessons. Like how there are many ways to do the same thing, so finding the one that works best for you is important. And how not knowing the answer to every question is absolutely fine, as we can explore it together to work out what we both think. And how yes, he just blamed the woman without many of us even noticing. Why is that?
These days, one of the big lessons I’ve learned from my mentees is that role models matter. The next generation needs people in positions like mine to model what good leadership looks like: leadership that’s driven by empathy, humility, vulnerability, integrity and collaboration. And that means that women of my generation must avoid taking the path of least resistance, “channeling your inner white bloke” to fit in with a dominant culture.
The women I’ve mentored have also taught me that many younger women simply aren’t as willing as my generation was to put up with a system that’s not working for half the population as well as it should, as this article also demonstrates. I find this such a powerful lesson, and it gives me even more impetus to create much-needed change in my industry for all marginalised groups – both in our workplaces and in the work we produce.
But maybe one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from each one of my mentees is that (just like with brands I work with) exploring your own personal “why” as well as your “what” is disproportionately important.
I’ve witnessed how powerful it is, how energised, focused and liberated people I mentor are when they really connect with why they do the work they do. And as well as being incredibly inspiring, that helps me reconnect with my “why” too.
So, if you want to keep on growing, my advice would be don’t just get a mentor.
Be a mentor too.
Lori Meakin is a working mum and Founder of Joint, a successful creative business, which makes me the exception rather than the rule.