Some people think mentorship is important, others, not so much. In my opinion, we may not always think we need mentors, but in one way or the other, we already have one. The person I came to call my first real mentor had the title of ‘boss’ and it wasn’t until years later that I realized the value of all I learned from her.
I had come home to find a stack of papers and brown envelopes in my laundry basket. Assuming it was my sister’s, I ignored them. That is, until I needed the basket. They were mine: college applications, recommendation letters, letters from school, the works. I ignored them still. Until I needed yet another excuse to delay my packing (procrastination becomes your best friend when you absolutely dislike packing). So, leafing through the stack of materials I’d long forgotten I had, I time-traveled to younger versions of myself and of my parents.
Among the things I found were invoices, letters and notes from my first real job… straight out of SSS. Now I must say that I didn’t get my job as an administrative assistant and sub-editor the traditional way. Applications? No siree. Connections – mum tells distant-not-really-a-relative aunt of so-so and so that her all-grown-up-distant-not-really-related-niece is all done with high school and looking to keep busy – nope. I got my first job through my network. – There’s a crucial difference between “networking” and “connections” which I’ll probably cover in a later post. – I wasn’t looking for a job. I was preparing to start a software development course at AITI-KACE when my good friend Nani called me up about a job she’d applied for. After interviewing she decided it wasn’t for her and recommended me instead. I got called up, went in for the interview, and by the end of it, I was employed.
Now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with anything. Among the papers I found was a list – a bucket list of sorts – for my time at my then-new job. Looking at it, I was confused. I didn’t recognize the handwriting. Later, I realized it was Juliet’s handwriting, and the memory came flooding back.
My First Mentorship Experience
Juliet was my boss. Barely a week into my time at Piper, she met with me to help me set some goals. On the list were a number of things including – and I quote – “improve communication skills”, gain “administrative skills”, “figure out value and pay” and “complete the ’16 journal’. A pretty simple list if you ask me, but really, it captures elements and skills of the working world that any university graduate or young professional should posses — and which 18-year old Jemi hadn’t quite mastered at the time. Besides introducing me to the likes of Iyanla Vanzant through her book One Day My Soul Just Opened Up, my eventual mentor played a key role in my transition to the labor force and in helping me figure out my career path.
She was unlike anyone I’d ever met. Barely 30 years old, she’d started her own publishing company. She has a very impressive resume and network, was full of energy ideas and had a great sense of fashion. Tasteful. I guess she’s what you’d call an “independent woman”. One thing that always stood out to me about her was her posture. She walked with confidence, even when – as she would sometimes confess to me – she didn’t feel it.
In contrast, younger me had somewhat of a quieter confidence. I didn’t openly acknowledge what I could do or “self approve” as Juliet did. That’s one very important thing I learned from her and many others: own yourself – your strengths, shortcomings, growth, lessons, your story, all of it.
Another area where I sorely needed help was my telephone-based customer service skills. I did a bad job of relaying my personality over the phone lines. Why? Because I was extremely cautious with people upon first meeting them. Even over the phone. Juliet would listen to how I received phone calls from clients and later tell me:
“Enunciate. Introduce yourself, speak up and speak clearly. They are coming to you for some assistance, make them feel at ease.”
Today, whenever I call one of the mobile companies in Ghana for some information, I cringe to think that I sounded so flat, uninterested and downright bored on the phone, as they do. It goes without saying that every customer relations professional, in Ghana at least, needs to meet a Juliet at some point in their career. The bottom-line: make the person on the other end of the line feel comfortable to open up and ask for assistance.
Lessons from My ‘Unofficial’ Mentor
By virtue of her being unapologetically herself, Juliet taught me the essence of self-valuation; of putting a price tag – or in this case a salary range – on yourself without ever discussing cedis and pesewas. There were days she would walking in oozing a million bucks and admit that she was broke. Of course, you can’t truly put a price to a human being seeing that there’s always that untapped potential, but the value you place on yourself will inform the value others accord to you as well – both career-wise and in other areas of life. You set the precedent.
So here was the deal. Juliet had made me an offer I accepted immediately, on the spot. Without having done any research beforehand on salary ranges in Ghana for an administrative assistants or SSS certificate holder; estimated costs for transport, meals other incidentals; how much I was actually willing to take based on the defined tasks. Bad move. I would run out of money before month’s end, then run to my parents. So much for I’m now 18 years (aka an “adult”), huh?
Juliet kept urging me – subtly – to re-value myself and propose a new salary. But being afraid shy as most people are – women especially – when discussing money, I kept mum. In the end, she gave me a pay raise “as a reward for your good work and an incentive to do better”. That was the letter I found. And so, I had a soft landing on this particular issue of self-valuation and salary negotiation; one that has since served me well.
It is highly important that one pay/be paid the right price for a service delivered – in cash, in kind, in job-related benefits. Not necessarily because you have a degree from a $50K+ university, but rather because of the impact it has on your working experience.
If you are paid too little, you will become disgruntled (in due time) and feel unappreciated at work even if the work environment is top-notch. If you are overpaid for your service the company will not be investing its money wisely and eventually you’ll get kicked to the curb. Thus, it’s important to always be fair – in one’s career and in things like hailing a taxi or using the services of a kayayo.
At the time I couldn’t have fathomed the invaluable skills and lessons I would garner from simply crossing paths with Juliet. We never officially called each other mentor or mentee, but we stayed in touch after I left and over the years. In many ways, our mentorship grew went beyond our original interaction as employer and employee. Herein lies the true value or characteristic of networking – going beyond mere service requests to developing authentic professional and personal relationships based on common interests. But that’s for another time.
Meeting a mentor, even unofficially, can be a quietly empowering thing. Not the clamoring, hand raising mentorship case of “I want a mentor or a mentee” that we are more conversant with, but rather the quiet moment where someone recognizes some potential in another and cares enough to help them out. You never know the impact you’re having on another. As in my case, the person you’re impacting might not even realize just how much they look up to you or how you’ve influenced them. Ultimately, everyone has something to offer. Simply by being oneself.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.