Taking a recruitment perspective to finding the right mentor is often the best way to finding the right ‘match’.
For many people considering the essential ingredients to a successful career, having a mentor isn’t high on the list. Reasons range from being intimidated by the prospect of identifying and approaching someone of influence, to thinking that they don’t really need input from others. The truth is, that opening your career up to another person can help keep it growing in the right direction.
The rewards of an effectively established mentorship can include clearer views of your career and even your life. While it’s true that some great mentorships develop spontaneously, you’re more likely get better results by putting some thoughtful effort into finding, choosing and interacting with the right mentor.
If your firm has a formal mentoring program, by all means take advantage of it. But don’t limit yourself to the mentor assigned to you. Seeking one out on your own may yield better results. Just as importantly, the search itself — including the potentially daunting request for help — can build your confidence and get you thinking more critically about your career direction.
Where Not to Start
Some professionals confuse bosses for mentors. While many supervisors provide helpful career guidance, it’s important to draw a clear line between the two roles. That’s especially true for administrative professionals, who tend to work so closely with their bosses. Even a trusted supervisor, who has your long-term success at heart, may have a hard time seeing the big picture of your career from so close up. And of course, your current manager isn’t the ideal person to ask about whether it’s time for you to seek a new employer. A mentorship also demands extra effort that your supervisor may simply be unwilling or unable to take on.
However, those drawbacks shouldn’t prevent you from seeking a mentor within your current workplace. After all, your colleagues know your professional life well. Just be sure it’s someone you can trust to keep your doubts and aspirations between the two of you.
Don’t Limit Yourself
Resist the temptation to choose a mentor based on his or her ability to provide you with powerful networking connections or an impressive reference. The strongest advisory relationships are built on an ongoing conversation that helps you understand your career — not on one-time favours.
Keep in mind that a mentor doesn’t have to be someone who makes more money than you or holds a more prestigious position. A peer can serve as a mentor if he or she has some qualities you admire. Another common mistake is limiting your search to people with whom you’re already friendly. Some of the most eye-opening input can come from people who aren’t so close.
Commitment is key; exclusivity is not. A mentor who provides all the help you need is rare. By not limiting yourself to a single person, you can improve the range and reliability of the advice you’ll get. One person may be a font of insight about your current challenges but can’t meet as often as you’d like. Another may have built a career you admire but doesn’t know the ins and outs of your industry. Having just one mentor also can put undue pressure on the relationship.
Five Qualities to Look For
Before you starting asking potential mentors for help, take some time to consider whether he or she has what you’re looking for. The qualities below might not match your needs perfectly, but they can help you narrow your search. While you shouldn’t expect to find a mentor who fits every criterion below, the most promising candidates will meet at least a few of them. A good mentor:
- Has something you want. Your mentor should have at least one characteristic you’d love to call your own. That might be something as simple as a position you’d like to have in a few years. It also can be a less tangible asset such as outstanding communication skills or the ability to balance personal and professional concerns.
- Tells it like it is. Someone who applauds your every move is a cheerleader, not a mentor. Support from an advisor can be a great source of strength during times of uncertainty, but you also need someone who can tell you things you don’t necessarily want to hear. The most valuable mentors are those who are willing to risk hurting your feelings in order to help you overcome a weakness or blind spot that’s holding you back.
- Sees things differently than you do. Ideally, conversations with your mentor will spur you to clarify your own thinking about your career. That way, you’ll benefit from the relationship long after the two of you have stopped meeting regularly. While it can be reaffirming to have someone tell you the same things you tell yourself, you’ll get more from a mentor who’s capable of surprising you with a fresh take on a familiar subject.
- Listens. If your mentor seems more interested in lecturing about their own expertise and philosophies than in understanding your current situation, you might want to take notes — and then look elsewhere. Not only will their disinterest limit the practicality of their advice, but it also may be a sign that they have stopped learning. A person whose wisdom congealed sometime in the 1990s isn’t likely to provide much help with the ever-evolving specifics of your career. Such a person also may try to shape you in her own image, rather than considering your unique capabilities and goals.
- Has time for you. Don’t underestimate simple availability. Desirable mentors tend to be successful, busy people who are already providing guidance to others, formally or not. Be sure to directly ask your potential mentor whether they realistically have time to meet with you regularly. The most insightful advisor won’t be very helpful if they keep cancelling your appointments.
Closing the Deal
Once you’ve identified a strong candidate, it’s tempting to let the relationship simply develop naturally, rather than officially ‘popping the question.’ True, asking someone you admire to devote time to you can be daunting and awkward. But, letting the arrangement remain informal can lead to misunderstandings and resentment. If your mentor hasn’t agreed up-front to provide a certain level of support, she may feel put-upon by the time of your third or fourth call. That’s why it’s best to be at least somewhat specific about the demands of the role, including the frequency, duration and general subject matter of your talks.
If you already have a familiar relationship with the person, you can broach these subjects directly. If not, you might start by sending an email explaining what you’re looking for and then asking for an opportunity — such as lunch or just a phone call — to discuss the matter further. Be prepared for yes, no and everything in between. Some people may be willing to chat occasionally, but not to serve as a regular contact. If that sounds useful, take them up on the offer.
Sticking With It
Once you’ve found a mentor, don’t count on your schedules to somehow align. The more regular and rigid the meeting plan, the better. Lunch at 1:00p.m on the second Tuesday of every month, for example, is much more likely to work than ‘let’s get together when we can’ approach. If an in-person meeting isn’t realistic, consider a shorter phone call at the same time each week.
Your work isn’t done after you’ve lined up a mentor (or two). An effective relationship depends on your ability to keep asking interesting questions. In fact, the habit of identifying the right questions to ask can be just as valuable as your mentor’s responses. By forcing yourself to regularly evaluate what’s important to you, what’s bothering you and where you’d like to be, you’ll become better able to set your own course.