Mentors are supposed to pass wisdom on to their mentees and show them how to be more successful in the world. But just as often, it’s the mentees who are teaching their mentors valuable lessons.
“Maybe it is because he was my first teen mentee,” says Divya Yerraguntla, a healthcare leader who heads the Commercial Program Management at SUN PHARMA. Luis was a student at Trenton High School in New Jersey and wanted to be the first in his family to go to college. Yerraguntla, who grew up in India, acknowledges that she was unaware of the challenges that American high school students face.
“I learned what it was like to be bullied at school and to not be able to go to anyone in your family for help with schoolwork,” she says. Yerraguntla used regular in-person and telephone check-ins to help Louis navigate not only the college application process but also the daily challenges of being a high school student—challenges that can often derail a teenager. With her support and guidance, Louis was accepted into the college of his choice, and Yerraguntla became a better parent. “Without meaning to, Louis helped me understand the challenges that my own daughter was facing at her high school,” she explained.
Another mentee helped teach Yerraguntla how often we undersell ourselves. The mentee had left the workforce for a couple of years to have a baby, and as part of her re-entry plan, she wanted to transition from finance to telecom. But she was struggling to get any interviews. “She really needed to be pumped up,” says Yerraguntla.
Yerraguntla saw that her mentee actually had quite a few transferable skills that she wasn’t emphasizing. “It’s important to understand what your key strengths are and what your core skill sets are so that you can apply them to the industry you are transitioning to,” says Yerraguntla. After changing how she packaged herself, her mentee got the job she wanted.
Even with training, no one comes to mentoring knowing everything—and thinking that you do puts you at a disadvantage, says Yerraguntla. By being open to your mentee and their unique challenges, you also grow. This is the symbiosis of mentorship. “Giving back is more for yourself than somebody else,” she says.
Yerraguntla has participated in more than 15 mentor-mentee relationships over the years, and each one came with a lesson or lessons that enriched her life and her work—often in unexpected ways.
For Yerraguntla, being a mentor is an essential part of being a leader at work, and over time, she has created a consistent approach to kicking off the relationships with her mentees. “It starts with being a good listener,” she says. In her initial interviews with mentees, Yerraguntla listens for key strengths, weaknesses, passions, and goals—not just in the mentorship itself, but within their lives as well.
“The initial two to three months of the relationship are extremely critical.” Yerraguntla typically works with mentees from six to nine months, beginning with weekly calls to ensure that goals, priorities, and actions are achievable. Once things are humming along, she transitions to biweekly or monthly check-ins. “I’m like, ‘Send me your problems.’ I love that.” She laughs.
Good mentors come from good mentoring, so it’s no surprise that Yerraguntla is an avid mentee, too. “In the past, it was a much more formal arrangement, but in the last 15 years, it’s been less so,” she says. Yerraguntla seeks out mentors based on whether the person is someone she wants to emulate. “I had to wait three months to sit down with one busy leader before she was able to generously give me an hour of her time. And believe me, by then, I had done my homework,” says Yerraguntla, who credits the leader with teaching the value of persistence.
“She told me that if I wanted something and was willing to work for it, it would come to me but that it requires patience,” says Yerraguntla. “She also taught me that it’s okay to take a step down in positioning (for a new job) if it’s in alignment with my passions—because the experience would pay off and I’d catch up to my career goals quickly.” Both lessons proved to be true, and Yerraguntla passes them on to her mentees as well.
Being a mentor and a mentee is essential to building the life that you want, she says. Whether you create a formal relationship or not, the gifts are mutual, and they are plentiful. Yerraguntla acknowledges that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the power of mentorship. It goes beyond work and life and speaks to the essence of purpose and meaning.