One Thing Young People Should be Committing to for International Youth Day

By Elizabeth Elango Bintliff, CEO,  JA Africa

If I can advise young people, in Africa or elsewhere in the world, to do one thing this International Youth Day as an investment in themselves it would be this: get a mentor! What’s a mentor, you ask? A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. What is mentorship? It is the guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution. Why is it important? Mentorship is important partly because if well done it will help you gain some knowledge and skills outside of an academic or parental framework. It will also orient you to professional life – whether you choose to become an employee or an entrepreneur- and it will facilitate your success. There is something about having someone who otherwise has no stake in your success helping you and believing in you that makes you want to succeed.

Since moving into my current role I have mentored many young people by default. I learned to become active on social media. “It’s where the young people are,” my staff tells me. Over the last year I have become amazed by its power to connect people to opportunity. Young people reach out to me very often on social media and the most common request that I get is “would you please be my mentor?” While I admire the proactiveness of these people in making this request, and I make a commitment to respond to most of the requests I receive I quickly started to notice a trend: we would exchange emails, set a time to meet and then very often they would vanish. They’d simply not show up. Sometimes they’d show up once. Many times they would be unprepared. I would call and they would be in a noisy location with friends, seeming surprised by my call.

Given this experience, I want to offer some advice on how young people can make mentorship meaningful and impactful for the mentor and the mentee. Here are my tips:

  1. Find Someone you admire and respect: It does not have to be someone in the field you aspire to, though that has its advantages. But you are unlikely to take the counsel of someone whose knowledge and experience you don’t appreciate. Mentorship works best when there is not a familial relationship. When it comes to mentorship, objectivity has benefit.
  2. Be direct in your request: Know what you want out of this relationship. Be clear and precise about what you are asking for. The person you are asking is likely a busy professional with little time on their hands. When you communicate to them be prepared. Say “I am thinking of starting a business in XYV and I need your advice. I would like to ask for an hour of your time once a week for five weeks to help me think through this process.” Or “I am interested in pursuing a career in XYZ. I’d like to exchange emails with you over the next 6 months to ask and answer my questions about what skills and qualifications would enhance my potential for success.” Or “I am curious to know what the daily life of a banker is as I’m considering working in that field. I would like you to let me shadow you at work for a day that is convenient to you.” When you manage the expectations of your potential mentor, you are likely to gain support and agreement.
  3. Show up and be on time: Lateness often kills interest and enthusiasm. It also signals to people that you don’t value their time.
  4. Ask Questions: Show that you have done your homework in advance of the meeting. It is useful to set the expectations with your mentor early on: can you ask personal questions (how do you balance life and work?) or just professional (tell me about your path to becoming a CEO). Do your research and ask questions. I once had a young person reference a statement I made in an obscure interview many years ago. I was impressed that she had gone digging that far back and that deep.

Feel free to be direct. There is no room for shyness, unless that is what you want to work on. Then you can say “one of the main things I am working on is overcoming shyness. What tips or advice do you have for me to use as tools?”

  1. Document the Process: A successful mentorship program helps define a roadmap. Write down what you are learning. Use it as an opportunity to introspect and to reflect. You may need to refer back to some conversations or lessons years later and it will be good to make sure you have your facts correctly. You may also want to show in your CV that you were mentored by a certain person and articulate what you learned from the experience.
  2. Show Gratitude: Say thank you. It just makes sense. Mentorship is free, but there is a cost of time to the mentor. Show gratitude. You cannot thank them too much. Make sure when you part ways you leave a positive impression with them. You may want to use them one day as a reference for a job. You also want to make sure the experience is positive so that if asked again by someone else the mentor is likely to say yes. That’s how you pay it forward.

Over the last few months employees of LinkedIn, based in Dublin, Ireland, have been mentoring JA students in a high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. This generation of youth have the benefit of technology to connect them to people in ways that was not possible just a decade ago. Distance and geography are no longer a barrier for you to connect with the people you admire and aspire to emulate. So reach out, find a mentor and start charting your path in life.

Now go forth and succeed!


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