by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Looking for a boost in your job search or working life? Find yourself a mentor -- or let one find you. A mentor is that one person who can guide you, help you, take you under his or her wing, and nurture your career quest. A Yoda to your Luke Skywalker. A Glinda the Good Witch to your Dorothy Gale. What separates a mentor from the average network contact is long-term commitment and a deep-seated investment in your future.
Where a typical network contact might be associated with quick introductions, exchanges of business cards, and phone calls, your relationship with a mentor likely involves long lunches and time spent in the mentor's office. A mentor is often in a position you'd like to be in and has the clout and connections to guide you to a similar position. He or she is someone you probably have unusually good chemistry with who will share stories with you of his or her own climb to success. An effective mentor isn't afraid to criticize constructively.
How to Find a Mentor
Check first to see whether you current employer, your college alma mater, or other organization with which you're associated already has a formal mentoring program in place. In these structured arrangements, participants are sometimes given personality assessments so that "mentees" can be matched with compatible mentors. Other organizations have found that when mentors and mentees are very different, greater opportunities for discovery emerge.
To find a mentor on your own, identify someone you admire and respect. You can chose someone from your own place of employment or outside it -- or both; some people have more than one mentor. "Serial mentors," those with whom you have a short-term relationship, one after the other, work well for some people. Authors Beverly Kaye and Devon Scheef describe short-term mentoring relationships that comprise "mentworking," a process combining mentoring and networking and enabling participants to give and receive in relationships in which everyone is both learner and teacher. "You'll ... be sharing your knowledge and abilities with others," the authors write, "serving as a mentor to many. In other words, each 'mentworker' receives and gives brain power to others, creating multiple short-term learning teams."
Decide what you need in a mentor -- what skills you'd like to develop with your mentor's assistance. Consider your goals in choosing a mentor. Think about what characteristics you're looking for in a mentor. You may want to do a bit of sleuthing to find out what the prospective mentor is like. What is his or her communication style? Ask the would-be mentor's co-workers and subordinates for their insights.
It's a good idea to choose someone working in the same functional area as you are, as well as someone who shares your values. Professional organizations in your field, whether they offer formal mentoring programs or not, can be excellent sources of mentors. Test the waters by asking advice. Be sure to reveal as much of yourself as possible. Mentors are most likely to invest themselves in those in whom they see a little of themselves, which is why you should never approach a prospective mentor in state of desperation or helplessness.
Don't ask your direct supervisor to be your mentor; it's better to have someone with whom you can talk freely about career and workplace issues. Some mentees prefer an older, more experienced mentor at a higher organizational level so they, too, can aspire to the upper echelons of the career ladder, while others benefit from peer mentors. Fast Company magazine offers the story of Lourdes Townsend who worked with 20 peer mentors as part of a program sponsored by her employer, Stride Rite. "I never thought about learning from someone on my level," Townsend says. "I always looked two to four levels above me and wondered what I had to do to get there. But the people who have the best solutions to the problems I face are often the people facing those problems themselves."
As Townsend's experience suggests, mentoring is sometimes conducted in groups. Women Unlimited, a development program for achievement-oriented women, employs a model in which pairs of mentors are assigned to three mentees.
What to Look for in a Mentor
A mentor wants to work with someone he or she can respect. He or she may even desire to mold the protege in his or her own image, which is fine as long as the mentor is not too obsessive about it, and you are comfortable with the image into which you're being molded. In that sense, a mentor can be a role model -- someone you'd like to model yourself after -- but does not have to be. Women and members of minorities that are underrepresented in the workplace may find it especially helpful to seek out mentors/role models of the same background so they can identify with the success of someone who has made it in a diverse workforce.
You should have a good feel after a few meetings as to whether the rapport is right for a mentoring relationship. At that point, you can either come right out and ask the person to be your mentor, if that feels appropriate, or you can simply tell him or her how much you've benefited from wisdom imparted so far and you hope he or she will continue to share it with you.
You should bring trustworthiness and the ability to keep confidences to the mentoring relationship, suggests Women Unlimited. The group also suggests that mentored relationships benefit when the mentee approaches the mentoring with openness, honesty, introspection, realistic expectations, accountability, and the ability to admit mistakes and share failures. Look for similar qualities in a mentor, the group advises, as well as a sense of humor, good listening skills, a high comfort level in giving feedback, and the ability to discuss a wide range of issues. Jeffrey Patnaude, author of Leading from the Maze, also suggests that mentors possess emotional intelligence, intuition, a drive to keep learning, and a desire to bring about change. Avoid a mentor who is too controlling, judgmental, or a know-it-all. Look for a positive, upbeat attitude -- someone who will become invested in and celebrate your success. The mentorship is especially productive when the mentor believes he or she can learn from you, and the relationship is a two-way street.
Nurturing the Mentoring Relationship
Talk with your mentor about mutual expectations for the mentoring relationship how it will work, what it will look like, and how often you'll communicate. You and your mentor may want to agree at the outset that either of you can end the relationship at any time with no hard feelings. Also be sure not to overburden your mentor by demanding too much time and attention or becoming overly dependent. Some experts suggest monthly meetings supplemented by regular e-mail and phone contact. Your meetings can be in the workplace, over a meal, at the gym, or anyplace that's conducive to a productive exchange of ideas. Set boundaries relating to confidentiality, time commitments, and the areas you mutually feel the mentor can most help you with.
The mentor may tend to give a lot more than you do to the relationship, so be sure to express regularly that you value and appreciate your mentor's guidance. The feeling of being needed and making a difference in a protege's life will often be a rewarding payoff for the mentor, but don't be afraid to supplement that reward with a token gift, flowers, or by picking up the check when you share a meal. You could also send a note to the mentor's supervisor praising his or her contribution to your professional growth.
You'll know if the mentoring relationship is working if your mentor encourages your goals, provides honest and constructive feedback, helps you develop self-awareness, challenges you to grow beyond your perceived limitations, introduces you to movers and shakers, motivates you to join professional organizations that can help you advance, and above all, listens to you and is easy to communicate with.
What do Mentors do?
Your mentor can help you assess your strengths and weaknesses, as well as help you develop skills for success and a long-range career plan. If you and your mentor share the same employer, your mentor can foster your sense of belonging within the organization, help you navigate the company culture and politics, as well as let you know who the organization's key players are. You can also work through career and workplace problems with your mentor's assistance. A mentor can provide a fresh perspective -- a new way of looking at a problem or issue. You can bounce ideas off your mentor. Look for a relationship in which the mentor is more coach than adviser -- one in which the mentor facilitates your decision-making process by suggesting alternatives rather than telling you what to do. Ideally, your mentor will motivate you to do your best work.
Mentors for College Students
Find out if your university has a formal mentoring program (alumni often serve as mentors), and if not, ask faculty members, the university's career-services office, and the alumni office for suggestions about possible mentors.
The value to a college student of being partnered with an alumnus/alumna or other professional in his/her field as a mentor is priceless according to career expert Marcia Merrill. "Students (mentees) get to ask their mentors questions about the 'real world.' Mentors report that it's very rewarding to help someone, remembering what it was like when they were trying to decide on a career.
"They invite the students to job-shadow them in the workplace to see how it really is and experience firsthand what it's like to be an attorney, doctor, or counselor/psychologist," Merrill continues. "Having a mentor can be the first step toward deciding on pursuing a given career." A mentor can also help a college student make connections between theories read in books and real-world applications of those theories in the workplace.
"Many students begin with making networking contacts and grow into working part- or full-time for their mentor or their mentor's contacts. Internships often result as the student gains the experience needed to make a career decision," Merrill says.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
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