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Mentors – Why to have one, how to get one… or more!

Why have a mentor? You’re educated. You’re smart. You’re good at what you do. So why would you need a mentor?

Although the mentor-mentee relationship is as old as the concept of “work”, it’s a hot new concept in the modern skills economy. Companies and professional cultures are acknowledging just how powerful a mentor can be in helping you direct your career and achieve your goals. But there can be a lot of reasons to get involved with a mentor. You might be thinking about developing some area of your working life (or your work-life balance) that you’ve been struggling with. You might be stalled, or even bored, in your current career. You might be transitioning to a new industry, or a new line of work, or a new city, or a new culture. You might be thinking about striking out on your own.

Imagine having someone experienced, a “sounding board” who can help you work out how to get where you want to go, or just someone with a different perspective on things. Imagine talking with someone who has struggled with the same issues you’re facing, someone who can share some of the things they’ve learned along the way.

Start by thinking about your goals

You can’t figure out who’s the best person to help you until you figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. And as a “mentee”, you’ll be more productive and more satisfying for a mentor to work with if you start out with a specific goal that you want to pursue, or an issue you want to address. Do you want to develop your independent business smarts? Your ability to self-promote? Do you want to expand into a new industry, or make the leap into management? Do you want to function well in a new culture, whether you have moved into a new country, or have begun doing business in that cultural group? Are you working on your ability to navigate relationships and network? Identify your priorities. Which leads us to…

You can have more than one mentor

You can turn to different people for different types of help, and each one brings something different to the relationship. One who’s in your workplace will understand more about what you’re trying to do, and under what conditions. But one who isn’t in your workplace will have enough distance from it to offer a fresh, “outsider’s” perspective. One who’s directly in your line of work has struggled with similar challenges to yours. But one who’s in a different line of work can inject a completely different perspective, and help you see things through new lenses. There’s no one ideal formula for a good mentor, and no rule that says you can seek out only one.

Where to find a mentor

Some companies have mentoring programs, where people seeking mentors and people willing to be mentors are matched up. Some foundations also offer the same matchmaking service. But look around in all the areas of your life. Join professional groups. Offer to help out at a conference that is likely to be run by, or attract, the kind of person you’re looking for. Watch for someone who embodies what you’d like to be, someday.

How to approach a potential mentor

Don’t arrive with a long list of expectations before you even have a relationship. Many people may simply not be able to help you in the way you’re looking for. Start out by asking for a no-strings-attached chat – at work, or over coffee, or lunch, and have some key questions to ask. Focus on specific areas of interest that you and the other person have in common. The mentor has to find this discussion stimulating and engaging and rewarding as well; they’re not just there to “brain dump” for you.

Structuring the relationship

If you “hit it off” decently in the first chat, ask if there is a possibility of setting up a regular or semi-regular interactions, whether it’s a business breakfast once a month, or coffee every other week, or a quarterly dinner somewhere (paying for the refreshments is good form on your part). Explain what it is you want to know more about, what your goal is, and how you’re trying to improve your own abilities. The job of improving you is yours, not your mentor’s.

What a mentor isn’t

A mentor is not a career counselor. It’s not their job to study you and figure out what you should do with your life and supply all the directions on how to get there. They’re not a sponsor. A mentor may, if they come to believe that you are a good risk, share some of their network contacts and other relationships with you. But it’s not fair to ask for a chunk of their hard-earned industry goodwill right off the top. A mentor is not a fairy godmother. They can’t wave a wand for you and make your wishes come true. You have to take the advice and input, weigh it, and do the thinking and doing for yourself. And they are most definitely not a therapist. They don’t want (and shouldn’t have to) listen to you grouse endlessly about the things that frustrate you. Your angle should be, “How can I achieve this goal?” not “Why can’t I achieve this goal?” Take responsibility for your decisions and how they work out.

Being a good “mentee”

To get the most out of a mentor-mentee relationship, you must be self-aware, and willing to receive feedback. If you can’t talk openly about your weaknesses, then you won’t be able to do anything about them. Likewise, you should be ambitious, committed, and willing to go outside your comfort zone. There’s nothing more frustrating for the person who has taken the time and trouble to give you advice than having the advice go nowhere because you don’t have the nerve or the drive to pursue your dreams. You’ll need to be discreet, if you want your mentor to share confidential or personal information with you, and independent enough to think for yourself.

Mentoring is a two-way relationship

The mentor-mentee relationship falls into a kind of gray area, in business terms. It’s not exactly “quid pro quo” (giving something to get something), but it needs to be rewarding for both people involved, or it won’t last. Since the mentor is most likely not seeing a financial or business gain, it’s important that they feel that their contribution makes a difference, and that their time and effort is appreciated. Someone whose success is worth imitating is probably someone whose spare time is in short supply; show respect for the gift of time and attention, and don’t demand too much. Show yourself as willing to take advice and try out suggestions, and then come back to discuss how they worked out.

And, it should go without saying, when the time comes, be ready to help out someone else who’s just getting started. It’s the giving-it-forward that shows the true power of the mentor relationship.

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