Advancing what you know through who you know

There are two schools of thought on the objective of mentoring:  some believe it is to get a better job, and others believe it is to get better at their job.  I ascribe to the latter.  In my experience, mentoring is most beneficial when the goal is intentional self-improvement.  My career has been shaped more by what I have sought to learn from others to improve my value to Caterpillar, than by seeking advancement.  

We are fortunate to work at a company with good people who are generally happy to share their knowledge and experiences with others.  I have found that these are the people who make the best mentors, and they are found at all organizational levels.  If you’re humble, curious and show interest in others’ work you’re likely to have several mentors already – whether you recognize them as such or not. Think of the people with whom you consult to get your job done:  team mates, coworkers in other parts of the business, a leader of a project on which you’re working.  These people likely have skills, know-how, or perspective that you don’t have today.  They are already helping you become better at your job.  Cast your net broadly and don’t miss the opportunity to learn from others in your business.  Most of the mentorships in my career have been informal, and they were almost all initiated by me.  Such connections can be highly impactful, professionally and personally, and can last a long time.  

Formal mentoring can be similarly impactful.  These relationships are more structured: mutually agreed to, with established learning objectives, ground-rules and time constraints.  I’ve formally mentored others, and I have found it to be personally gratifying. Ideally, mentoring relationships are between individuals who are not in the same management chain.  A reporting relationship can introduce interpersonal dynamics that challenge transparency.  The formal and usually time-bound nature of these relationships compels more formal preparation.  Each party should come to the session prepared with discussion points.  The conversations evolve throughout the relationship until the learning objectives have been fulfilled, at which time the contact becomes less frequent or on an as-needed basis.

Reverse mentoring is a relatively new concept that is gaining traction at Caterpillar.  It’s not very different from formal mentoring in that the same structures typically apply, but it flips the dynamic considerably.  Reverse mentoring allows a more senior person to be developed by someone junior to them.  It can expose more senior people to generational, geographic, gender-unique or technologically-informed perspectives that can help them better navigate our ever-evolving workplace.  The secret to a successful reverse mentorship is a shared willingness to refuse awkwardness and predisposition.  Curiosity, humility and humor on both sides can result in a powerful dynamic and significant growth.  This is one reason I enjoy sponsoring the Young Professionals ERG.  Our regular discussions are informal reverse mentoring opportunities for me.  They help me see our workplace differently, see development differently, and check my paradigms against more contemporary ones.   

I’ve also been on the receiving end of more formal reverse mentoring relationships.  Our Women’s Initiative Network group made one of these possible for me.  My goal was to hear a younger woman’s perspective on our workplace and check it against my assumptions around diversity.  I learned that my seasoned views are still relevant, which made me more confident in my leadership, but I had room to grow in how I expressed those views.  Language can be a powerful unifier, and I am better prepared to bridge gaps in my own division as a result of this mentorship.  

Each of us wants to be better at our job and a more valuable contributor to Caterpillar, no matter where we are in the organization.  There’s no mystery to making this happen.  Simply engaging purposefully with others in the interest of continuous improvement can spark positive growth … both personal and professional.  Caterpillar is a rich source of human connection.  If you want help, or have help to give, look around you … opportunities for intentional partnership and guidance abound.  Who you know can help you to advance what you know and how you go about doing your best work for the company.

Tana L Utley
Vice President – Large Power Systems Division