The Best Career Advice My Mentors Ever Gave Me

Mentoring has always been the most rewarding part of my work. It is also the only way I am likely to leave any kind of legacy in higher education.

Almost 20 years ago, I was a young assistant director of admissions, assigned to overhaul an underperforming campus-tour program. I poured my energy into reorganizing it and into mentoring and training undergraduates to be our tour guides. I still hear from some of them today: One is a director of institutional academic planning for a west-coast college, another is a partner in a law firm, a third works for the Harvard Business School, a fourth is a business lead in national security for space launches, and a fifth is a transportation planner for the Northeast Corridor.

Now I am a vice president for enrollment management. If I’m honest, the work I do in any given year — the results I achieve, the things I fix, the plans I create — will all be forgotten in another year or two. This is especially true in enrollment, where every year the goals are reset. Maybe someday I will retire from an institution and it will name a broom closet after me, but I am not counting on it. My best opportunity to make a lasting difference is by investing in others. And that holds true for other administrators in a variety of roles across the campus.

There is something so thrilling in helping someone to develop their potential, to imagine who they could become, and to give them the confidence to achieve it. Perhaps part of the reason that I get so much joy from mentoring is that I remember how much my own mentors shared the wisdom I needed at pivotal moments of my life. Gratitude has inspired me to pass on the best advice they gave me — along with a few lessons I’ve learned during my own professional journey — in the hope that these suggestions will benefit you or the people you are now mentoring.

Find work you (mostly) love. Young professionals need someone who can act as a compass at the start of their career. Coincidentally, my first mentor was an admissions counselor named Paul. (At that point, I had no thought of pursuing a career in enrollment management, so maybe it was destiny.) When I was a senior in high school, Paul, with his great British accent and confident salesmanship, acted like a beacon to help me navigate my college choice. Two degrees later, when I found myself without a career path, I called him out of the blue to ask his advice.

By that time, Paul had left higher education and founded a youth soccer league that was growing rapidly. I asked him if I should think about higher education as a career. He said, “You need to try admissions. You will either fall in love with it, or it will teach you what it is that you really do love. That’s what it did for me.”

Up to that point, I had not thought of a job hunt as a search for some combination of love and learning, but it made so much sense. His words started me on a path of experimentation in my career. I have not always loved my work, but I have learned to always be on the lookout for the parts I love and want to do more of. Pursuing that approach has helped me find myself professionally and understand what brings me joy.

Execute, execute, execute. Jim was my enrollment godfather. A long-time senior vice president for enrollment, he was a consultant to the first college I worked for and my first mentor as an admissions counselor. Early on, he shared an insight that I have carried with me ever since: “Aaron, I have a good friend who is the CEO of a major national corporation. He confided in me once that when hiring, he only looks for one thing: ability to execute. Do you have that?”

As mantras go, “ability to execute” has served me well throughout my career. It has built in me a strong bias for action and experimentation. You can have brilliant ideas. You can schedule lots of meetings. You can win all the arguments, but all of that is for nothing if you do not get results.

I often use the metaphor of a pipe to describe the work process. Yes, it’s important to know that good things are going in, but is anything worthwhile actually coming out the other end? Act. Build momentum. Execute.

Underpromise and overdeliver. I first met Dennis when he was being interviewed to become vice president for enrollment management, and thus my boss. I didn’t think I would like him. I was a mid-level admissions staffer who thought I could read people. I didn’t like that Dennis seemed to think he had all the answers.

It turned out that he did have all the answers, or at least most of the ones I needed. Dennis helped to engineer a really exciting turnaround at the college, and he made me a focal point in it. He taught me how to engage a team, how to laugh in the face of adversity, and how to keep your principles even when the rest of the world gets mired in politics.

The lesson I remember most, however, was his admonition to “underpromise and overdeliver.”

It’s really hard work to help people set reasonable expectations of you — and for you to learn to set them for yourself. Set small goals, then blow them out of the water. Resist the urge to get carried away with yourself or what you are doing. Prove you are trustworthy in handling small things before asking to take on the big things. The times in my career when I most let myself down were when I forgot this advice.

Seek out people of substance. Some people speak louder with their actions than with words. Such was my boss and mentor Jane. I should have known what it would be like to work for her from the day I accepted the position of director of admissions with her as my VP. “I have been told that I need to offer you this salary,” she said, stating the figure. “But if you asked, I could go up to here. So is there anything you want to ask me?”

I learned so many lessons from Jane, but among the most important was to make sure you have people of substance in your life. These are the people who complement your strengths, are honest but kind with your weaknesses, and can help you maintain your perspective.

I don’t think everyone I worked with fully appreciated Jane. She was so smart and driven, I think she intimidated a lot of people. She was also a master tactician, with an amazing ability to move the pieces of the puzzle around to get a desired outcome. She was the last person you would want to play chess against, but the first one you’d want in your foxhole. When I went through a difficult job change at one point in my career, I called her, even though we had barely spoken in two years. She took it on as a personal challenge and steered me toward a great outcome.

Find people in your professional life who are real, and let them know how much you appreciate them for it.

Learn to let it go. It is really helpful to have at least one mentor outside your professional circle to help you keep a healthy perspective on your life.

Nearly every week, I talk with Dave, an 85-year-old friend and mentor. He worked in higher education for a few years several decades ago, but he has also done a lot of other things, like supporting churches in other countries and helping to resettle refugees in the United States. He has had his share of personal struggles but lives simply, in a small house in Maine.

When I vent with colleagues, they usually indulge me and make me feel justified in my aggravation. Not Dave. He will listen for a minute and then usually interrupt and say, “Yeah, you’ll always have aggravations like that. I always did when I was working. They still like you at your college? They still treating you OK? Good, then let’s talk about your family.”

How refreshing is that? It is so easy to get lost in our work and think it’s life. We need people who don’t understand what we do — and don’t really care. They only care about us. We need to be reminded to stop trying to fix everything and actually enjoy the journey. Dave has often counseled me, “When things start to feel a little out of control, take your hands off the wheel.”

My advice, if I can put on my mentor hat for a moment, is to make time for mentoring in your busy career. Successful mentoring does not require a formal program or special training. The only prerequisite for being a mentor is that you care enough to be committed to someone else’s professional growth. Frankly, I have found the payback to be much greater than the cost, as with a little time and effort, I get to share in the fun of helping another person thrive.

Choose a student, choose a young professional or two, and let them know you are willing to share the legacy that was passed on to you. By the end of your career, this may well be the work of which you are most proud.