Get a mentor. You’ve probably heard this career advice more than once. Unfortunately, many professionals know they should get a mentor but few know how to go about finding one or what to expect out of the mentoring process.
First Things First: What is a Mentor?
A mentoring relationship is much more than just networking. A mentor is a role model who guides you through different phases of your career, helping you to set goals and expecting you to meet those goals.
A good mentor will share information gained from their experience, offering insight into your own career future while helping you avoid the same detours and pitfalls they encountered along the way.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about mentoring is that you will have a single mentor. Jerry Haar, Ph.D. and professor of management and business at Florida International University, recommends cultivating a network of advisors — individuals with diverse skills who can counsel you in different areas of your life and career.
What Makes a Good Mentor?
When seeking out a mentor, you should look for someone whose work ethic, management style and professional accomplishments you admire. Often this will be someone who is further along a similar career path to your own. However, you don’t have to choose a mentor from the same field or the same industry.
Successful executives, regardless of their field, can share important insights about climbing the corporate ladder, developing leadership potential, and achieving professional goals. If you pass on potential mentors just because their profession doesn’t mirror your own, you could be missing out.
Similarly, as a Hispanic professional, you may think it is absolutely necessary to find a Hispanic mentor. While a shared cultural heritage can be a great benefit, you shouldn’t select a mentor simply because they are Hispanic. A mentor should be someone whose success you admire, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
“The precise wrong way to go about it is to find a mentor who is of your culture,” warns Dr. Haar. “It sounds counterintuitive, but the main priority is to find the right mentor with the breadth and depth of experience so they can guide you. The right mentor [in a business relationship] has three qualities: experience in the world of business, the passion to be a mentor and someone who can understand and connect with the mentee. If they happen to be from the same ethnic or religious group, that is frosting on the cake, but it’s not the cake.”
Where do I find a Mentor?
Before seeking out a mentor, make sure you have identified your professional goals, both short-term and long-term. Where do you want to be in a year? Five years? Ten?
Dr. Haar suggests you research which social and business organizations best fit into your plan. Join those organizations, meet people, get involved and find individuals you admire personally and professionally. Volunteer to help with projects that potential mentors are leading.
Your company or professional association may also offer a formal mentoring program or mentor matching service. Now is the time to express interest or submit your formal application for these programs.
Most importantly, be persistent and don’t give up. There is a good mentor out there for everyone willing to take the time to find one.
How do I approach a Potential Mentor?
Once you have discovered someone you believe would make a good mentor, then what?
Terri Scandura, Ph.D., professor of management at the University of Miami, suggests arranging a meeting with potential mentors. Let those person know how much you admire their skills and what they are doing. In the course of a conversation, ask to be involved with one of their ongoing projects. Be ready to present ideas on how you can help move the project forward, and what the mentor will gain from taking you under his or her wing.
“At worst, they will say no, but be flattered you recognized their skills. At best, they ask you to join them,” says Scandura, adding that a project offers a timeframe; if something doesn’t work out, the end of the project is an easy time to move on. If a good working relationship is established, you can sign on for the next project. You’ve found your mentor!
What should I expect out of the relationship?
The most important thing to remember is that this is a professional relationship. A mentor is not your best friend, your therapist, or a shoulder to cry on.
You will hear straight talk and frank observations from your mentor, and you need to be able to handle this constructive criticism. “You want someone who is compassionate,” says Haar, but also someone who is also going to hold you to high standards. A mentor will be emotionally involved on some level, but they should also feel comfortable pointing out when you messed up and how. You need to be able to hear and act on these observations so you can gain everything possible from the experience.
Another important aspect of the mentor-protégé relationship is goal setting. Your mentor will help you choose appropriate goals and hold you accountable for meeting them. One of the best ways you can let your mentor know you appreciate his or her guidance is to be focused and meet the goals you’ve set.
What does the Mentor gain?
Mentoring is a two-way street, says Scandura. One of the benefits of having a younger protégé is having a connection to the junior ranks within a company. By cultivating relationships with junior staffers, the mentor gains support for ideas and projects, says Scandura, and the mentor builds a loyalty base at the same time.
The mentee may also bring new ideas and current technical skills to the mentor. While the mentor is fully capable of learning new skills, “the mentor may not be up with the most current trends, so it becomes an exchange,” notes Scandura. Be proactive in the relationship so the mentor sees the value in continuing to nurture your skills, says Scandura, making it a win/win situation for both sides.
The reasons for becoming a mentor may also be personal. Perhaps no one was there to support the mentor on their way up and they want to make sure things are different for young professionals today. Or maybe a mentor made a significant impact in their career, and they want to do the same for junior colleagues.
When does a Mentoring relationship end?
Of course, all good things come to an end. “You need to be aware when a mentoring relationship has run its course,” says Haar. You will come to a point where you have accomplished the goals you set out to accomplish with that mentor. You both need to take stock of your mentoring relationship and understand that it may be time for you to move on, seeking out a new mentor to help you develop new skills and achieve different goals.
If you are lucky enough to find a good mentor, show your appreciation along the way. They will be putting in a lot of time to help you obtain your goals. Thank your mentor often, and then, when you can, pass it on. That may be the biggest thanks of all.