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Are mentors the key to a thriving career? Zeena Khan’s story

Zeena Khan is a go-getter. Born in Fiji and raised in South Auckland, Zeena spent nearly two decades working in the contact centre industry for major corporations before returning to study at MIT, where she also serves as Manager for the Information and Application Centre. She thrives in a territory that can make many people nervous: change.

Across her 18-year career, Zeena credits her experiences with positive mentors as one of the guiding forces that have helped her to grow and thrive in times of change, and emerge as a true leader. “I’ve had a number of mentors over the years who’ve been so important to my growth and confidence in my career. I believe they are the key to success in whatever you are aiming for, having a mentor has helped me in many ways – they are a great sounding board, with no bias or judgement, creating a supportive safe space to work through perceived challenges and more often help you uncover answers that are already within.  Having a mentor has nurtured an open mind and growth mind-set.”

Positive and upbeat, it’s not surprising that Zeena’s motto in life is

“do something today that your future self will thank you for”

– it’s a saying that her own drive and initiative has certainly made true. Meeting with mentors has been a major part of that.

As can often be the case in the workplace, many of Zeena’s mentors were also her managers. Weekly or monthly face-to-face catchups provided support and grounding for her work in customer service, and she was able to get feedback and on her performance that allowed her to develop her skills to align with her long-term goals.

“What I liked about this type of mentor-mentee relationship was that as a mentee, I got the chance to ‘drive’ the conversation. The mentor helped with guidance, but didn’t necessarily give me the answers. It was so empowering –  the whole experience instilled self-belief and increased confidence. Mentoring relationships are about the journey not the destination and in the journey there is invaluable growth!”

Practically, finding a mentor can sometimes be a challenge. How do you identify someone that would be open to mentoring? What does the relationship look like? A wise manager gave Zeena helpful criteria: “Choose a manager that you admire and pick out the traits about them that stand out to you. Meeting with them will help to hone those skills in yourself.”

Depending on the type of workplace and industry, mentoring can look different for different people. Zeena’s preference was always face-to-face communication: it reduced confusion and allowed the pair to connect more naturally. “With the world the way it is, I stayed open to mentoring online via email, or over the phone via Zoom or Skype on the occasions when in-person meetings weren’t possible.”

She found that it worked best to meet in person initially to discuss the challenges she was facing as a mentee and map out what they could work on in the coming meetings. It also gave a chance for the mentor and mentee to agree on the meeting dates, times, frequency and preferred methods of contact. “A tip for new mentees: because you drive the process, always follow up with an email to your mentor after each meeting. It’s a part of your development and demonstrates that you value the importance of the working relationship going forward.”

As she reflects back on her mentoring relationships throughout her career, Zeena is thankful for just how much self-awareness she’s gained through connecting with mentors. “The key takeaway for me has been the ability to self-reflect, which speaks to my self-awareness – I don’t think there is anything more important in life but to be self-aware.” As she grew in her career, this only became more important: “As a leader, it becomes even more imperative to work on and own this trait. With the number of situations, decisions and information that come at you, a well-developed self-awareness it will most certainly help you to self-regulate and work through things more effectively.”

In March 2019, Zeena will be walking the stage with other proud graduates receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Management, Business Transformation and Change. “I’ve always been a part of change management, either played a key role or lead change, it is definitely something I love! I find the process of change very exciting,” Zeena says. “All the possibilities and opportunities that come with change is what drives me. That is why it was super important for me to find a degree that would sustain my interest and align with my career goals. Lucky for me, MIT offered just the major I was looking for and I could further my study while working.”

How is she feeling about where she is at today? “Excited! I was always taught to have a go, figure things out and be intrigued by mystery. It was important for my family to see me do well and make the most of moving to New Zealand and now it’s so satisfying that I am qualified in the field I enjoy and have direct expertise in.”

Celebrating the mentors that have helped her along the way, Zeena would encourage anyone to challenge themselves and grow through a mentoring relationship. “Have a go! Things that don’t make sense at the time often reveal themselves along the way, and personal growth and professional development skills and knowledge are transferrable.”

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