Mentor Perspectives: Dancan Onyango, Part 2

by | Aug 24, 2022 | Mentorship

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Lesson 1: You Cannot Be What You Cannot See

I got my first glimpse into mentoring while I was a graduate student at Babson. The college’s faculty did an incredible job at matching students with mentors in their desired career paths. I primarily joined the mentoring program to market myself and to see if there was room for connecting with a potential employer, but what I found was even better: I got a front-row view of what mentoring really is. 

My criticism of the program was that there was no African representation in the room. At Babson, I was one African out of every 250 students, and that’s counting by the drop rule! 

Like most African students, I experienced first-hand both the abject desire for professional guidance and the absolute longing for connection. I had to choose one over the other. The degree to which African students across the spectrum suffer in the absence of mentors is so apparent and particular to their countries of origin. Not to mention the long-held cultural convictions around mentoring. For a long time, I was looking for someone who would relate with my ambition of becoming a CFO, or a Chief Investment Officer. 

The day before I was scheduled to speak with my new mentor, a friend asked me: “What are you going to tell her?” I didn’t have a clear answer. But I did my homework, prepared my resume and was ready to elaborate on the “dry details” on my resume – as one interviewer had previously described it. I looked up on her LinkedIn profile and learned she was not only a PhD holder but also a Kenyan. There are certain conversations that students are only comfortable having with someone familiar with their context. 

When we had our first phone call, I was immediately drawn to her confidence, charisma, and work ethic. She was warm, curious, good-humored, and polite. We had far reaching conversations. 

Each time we talked, she showed keen interest in my personal and career plans. She had a particular interest in how much progress I was making in my job search. This wasn’t the first encounter with her. Her approach to job search and execution was highly innovative.  I felt particularly fortunate to find someone who understood the woes of immigration– but that is a story for another day.

I rattled on and on about my consulting background and how I was looking to pivot to impact investing. I had done some research about asset management firms and how I could pivot, bearing in mind the different industries and environments they operated in. I had always viewed issues of corporate governance and finance as relatively similar. Besides, I had a summer internship with a New York-based PE firm on my resume.

Like many international students, I had no relevant US-based work experience. “That can be remedied by taking on an internship,” my mentor reassured me. She then handed me a whole list of possible opportunities I could explore with my MBA and then began opening up her networks. 

Lesson 2. Own the Mentoring Relationship

I am so grateful that I got to live to see some of the early days of Ladder by 8B. Although I didn’t do anything to earn my mentor’s time, she introduced me to a second mentor. It turns out that one mentor is never enough. She was almost synonymous with dedication, timeliness, and precision. The way I paid her back was with preparation and hard work. Without preparation or asking questions, you leave your mentoring outcome to fate. 

A mentor will only be effective to the extent that you are willing to listen. I have been lucky to find mentors who care personally about me and challenge me directly. Accepting criticism is hard. It can wreck you emotionally and send your mind into a tailspin. But to get the most out of a mentoring relationship, one must be ready to be criticized.

Frankly, without criticism, we cannot improve. Mentor’s feedback must be received with an open mind. This open mindedness helped me find out what is working in my job search and what needs to be stepped up. If your objective is to be as good as you want to become, then you must be open to criticism.  

One time when I received an offer letter for my current employer, one of my mentors was visibly beaming on hearing that I had finally landed the long-awaited offer. At one point, I felt that she was happier than I was. For the first time, I felt like I was doing something important by contributing good news to the call. I wanted to maintain that mood the whole time, but life doesn’t work like that. I was still stuck with the work visa situation. 

At the same time, my mum was diagnosed with a tumor of the brain which stole all my reason to celebrate. I am not sure how I would have balanced email exchanges with Gilead and coordinating my personal issues. 

Your personal and professional lives are intertwined. You must be willing to disclose both to your mentor. I am a pretty mediocre communicator, and sometimes I like to keep to my corner especially when things aren’t going smoothly. I was never raised to speak up or ask for help. My culture taught me to be a man and ‘offer’ help to others.  This is a view I have held for a long time, which explains why I seek the best in all my friends, family is that I want the best for them. 

For the simple reason that their success gives me a layer of social insurance. If you are outstanding in your field, or a narcissist who wants to be the only successful one in the group, then you will be exposed- sooner or later! 

The truth is a supportive mentor serves your own interests, but they must be proactive.  

Lesson 3: Be intentional about what you want. 

There is no need to rehash how important it is to be clear about what you want. In American corporate spaces, it is hunger games– here and now. The formula for success is hard work or working smart, they say. 

But your mentor can only help you cut the chase if he or she knows exactly what you want to become.  If you are into a career, be aggressive. Give it your best shot, and sometimes your best shot can mean leaving familiar shores, taking on a risk or going against the wind. 

Flesh out your goals before seeking out your mentor’s advice. 

I am now part of a challenge group– a group of friends you trust to push you to get better. My challenge group holds me accountable to my values, my passions, and check on tendencies. 

Be frank about your dreams and speak frankly about them. 

Missed part 1 of this series? Read it here!

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