Sink or Swim: The Importance of Mentors

By: Lori Bailey

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When I was 9 years old, my next door neighbor dared me to join the swim team. As any elementary school student would tell you, one never backs down from a dare and I was no exception. But here’s the thing — I was never taught how to swim. And not only was I never taught, I was terrified of the water. So while I reluctantly accepted the challenge, I did so knowing that if I was to succeed, I was going to have to face one of my biggest fears.

I had watched my friends swim for a long time, so I knew what was involved, but I had never done it myself. After a few excruciating practices of dipping my toes in the water, the coach pulled me aside and said simply ‘you know what to do — you just need to do it”. And so, with a deep breath and eyes closed, I threw my head down into the water figuring there would be no shortage of parents and coaches nearby if I sunk to the bottom of the pool. But I didn’t sink, and I didn’t drown. Was it graceful? No. Was it perfect? Hardly. But I was swimming (or at least trying!) — and I realized it wasn’t so scary after all.

Throughout my career, I’ve had countless experiences which have taken me through the same journey that I experienced as a child. That feeling of being put into a situation where you are not sure what to do, or worse yet, knowing what you have to do but fearful of the consequences. And I know I’m not alone because we’ve all taken risk at some point in our career. Perhaps it’s a project that we didn’t know how to tackle or a promotion to a larger role — it can be overwhelming and downright scary. But in those moments where we can either let self-doubt get the best of us, or dive in head first — we all need coaches and mentors to remind us of what we are capable of.

A few years ago, I was asked to manage a project in an area for which I did not have substantial expertise. It was the first time this particular project had been undertaken so there was no prior work or history to guide me, nor any roadmap from which to follow — and I was scared. What if I didn’t measure up? Or made the wrong decisions? What if I let people down? And in that moment, I heard my coach’s voice echo in my ears as loudly as it did that day at the pool — I knew what I had to do, I just needed to do it. My current mentors reminded me of that as well. In the early days, there were times that it felt uncomfortable, but just as I discovered that fateful day so many years ago, once I got past that initial fear, there was a genuine excitement at the whole new world which lay ahead of me. And so bit by bit, meeting by meeting, the project moved forward and ultimately came to a successful completion several months later. Without coaches and mentors along the way, I might have given up or not stretched myself to believe that I could take on such a project. We all need a support network to help us realize our full potential and remind us that when we are standing at the crossroads, we are more capable than we realize. I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful mentors throughout the years — both formal and informal — and am eternally grateful for their encouragement to push past those difficult moments.

My swimming career did not end that day in the pool. I went on to swim competitively for 8 years, earning many medals and ribbons along the way. I even taught swimming lessons to young children. And when I encountered a child who was fearful of the water, I would share my story with them and assured them if I could do it, anyone could. Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

Lori Bailey is the Global Head of Cyber Risk for Zurich Insurance Group.

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