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  • Writer's pictureJenn Donahue

How My Mentors Have Changed my Life

How has mentorship changed your life?

I know for me, my mentors have completely altered the course of my career.

There were times when I felt like my career was heading into a death spiral, specifically when I was deployed to Afghanistan. Without the encouragement, leadership, and connection I had with my mentors, I would not be where I am today.

I believe it is the ability to find lessons in our strife that makes us great leaders. I would not have learned the lessons I did as quickly without the help of my mentors.

“87% of mentors and mentees feel empowered by their mentoring relationships and have developed greater confidence.”

Mentors are like beacons of hope on your career path, always being a source of light for you to look towards when you feel like you are lost or drowning.

And, as a leader of a business or organization, mentorship can greatly contribute to the success of your business.

“67% of businesses reported an increase in productivity due to mentoring.”

My mentors have helped shape me, guide me, and ultimately help me to own who I am and what I am meant to do.

Here’s how my mentors have changed my life.

Afghanistan, empathy, and female mentorship

I really struggled when I was deployed in Afghanistan. I had this horrible boss that verbally beat us down all the time, yelled at us, and made us feel unappreciated.

What helped the most was being able to call my mentor, Rear Admiral Paula Brown, and talk to her about it. Paula confirmed that what I was going through was truly a struggle and that I would get through it.

Having a female mentor was important to me because women still only represent sixteen and a half percent of the military, and Paula was one of the trailblazers in the military. She was the very first female reserve Civil Engineer Corps admiral.

I respected the way that she carried herself because she wasn’t one of those big, boisterous, loud types of leaders. She led very similar to my own style of leading… with empathy.

Paula taught me a lot about compassion, listening to people, taking in ideas openly, and really being more of a servant-leader than what you’d think of as your typical Navy leader.

Without Paula, I would have spiraled in my struggles in Afghanistan. She helped to give me a solid foundation to lean on when mine felt slippery. She helped me keep things in perspective and remember that all good and bad situations are temporary.

How to get to know your team

In addition to Paula, I have had other wonderful and equally as life-changing mentors throughout my career.

I’ve learned that it’s best to have many mentors, not just one. Each mentor can represent a different side of you that you’d like to grow. So while Paula helped move me through some emotionally tough times, other mentors, like Rudy Bonaparte, have taught me how to be the best business leader I can be.

Rudy taught me a lot about leadership in a corporate setting. He leads by example, and one of my favorite thisngs that he does is he really, and I mean really, gets to know his team.

“I want to know everybody because we are family, and I have a commitment to those who decide to work at our firm.”

He establishes trust with his team in a very interpersonal way. Rudy actually uses notecards to learn and remember all of his employees so that he is able to have meaningful and memorable conversations with his employees each time.

I’ll never forget when I worked for his organization years ago, and he came from the Atlanta headquarters to our office in Oakland. I was shocked when he approached me. He was kind, engaging, and interested in what I was working on. He asked me questions about my project and suggested I write a journal paper on the research and analyses I was performing.

Six months later, Rudy comes back to our office, and when he sees me, he asks me about my husband, the project I was working on, and if I had finished the journal paper.

I was blown away! How did the president of an 800+ company remember a conversation we had six months ago? I felt unbelievably valued and fortunate to be working for this man.

He taught me that by instilling trust with your employees you are encouraging them to take on challenges within the company.

I understood through my mentorship with Rudy that you could really lead with compassion and be an empathetic leader in business who really cares about getting to know their team.

The way he treated his people is above and beyond anyone I’ve seen in the corporate world, and I strive to learn from and emulate him in my own leadership style.

Be on the cutting edge

Another hugely important mentor to me is my more technical mentor: Norm Abrahamson. Norm was monumental to my success as a technical engineer in my field.

Norm took me under his wing and showed me everything I needed to know about seismic hazard analysis… And I don’t mean the basic stuff. I mean the really high-end, cutting-edge stuff.

Having a technical mentor specific to your talents and skills is essential for growth in your particular field. When you are able to learn from the best, you can apply next-level ideas, solutions, and processes to your own framework and get to where you’re trying to go faster.

I was so honored and blessed to have Norm as a mentor because he only takes on a couple of mentees at a time because he invests a lot of time into each person he mentors.

After he taught me everything I needed to know, from probabilistic seismic hazard analyses to non-ergodic analysis to the implementation of chaos theory, he then became my biggest advocate to others in his own network. He introduced me to so many different clients of his which allowed me to grow my own client base. Having Norm’s trust immediately made other prolific leaders in the industry trust me, too.

Through Norm’s advocacy and investment in my skills, learning, and growth, I was able to start my own business successfully.

Mentorship makes a positive impact in business

“71% of people with a mentor say their company provides them with good opportunities to advance in their career, compared with 47% of those without a mentor”

It’s important that both mentors and mentees embrace mentorship in the business place.

“structured, formal gender-based mentoring programmes are creating better gender diversity in the workplace by significantly growing women’s confidence, enabling a more inclusive culture and organisation, creating positive change beyond the programme, providing the skills and frameworks for more empathetic, accessible leaders and driving best practice for broader mentoring schemes in organisations.”

As a leader, it’s important to pay mentorship forward to help push the needle in a positive direction. I am a mentor to several other engineers both formally and informally in the military and civilian sectors.

Mentoring women in the workplace cannot wait. Being a mentor to others is one of my biggest ways to show gratitude and respect to the mentoring I’ve received and help build up future female leaders in STEM. While it comes with sacrifice, mentoring has been one of the best returns on my investment.


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