“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself” – Oprah Winfrey
Richard Branson’s was Freddie Laker, Barack Obama’s was his future wife Michelle, Mark Zuckerberg’s was Steve Jobs. What are we talking about? Mentors, of course!
If you read my blog regularly, you’ll have seen me talk about the importance of role models in career success before and they do indeed, have a huge part to play in modelling the skills you would like to acquire and inspiring you in the career path you would like to follow.
But a mentor is a little bit different. Equally as inspiring as a role model, a good mentor can also have a positive practical and tangible impact on your career progress.
So what exactly is a mentor? Well, a mentor is usually an older, more experienced person who has trodden a similar career path to the one you wish to travel, but is further along the line. He or she will use their experience to offer advice, and share knowledge and skills with you to help you progress, provide constructive feedback and encouragement, and empower you to stretch yourself and your abilities to reach your true potential. On a practical level, a mentor might also be able to help with professional networking and introductions, or support you in working towards promotion/negotiating pay rises. A good mentor will also become a friend – a successful mentor/mentee relationship should be based on a real connection and shared passion – it should be defined by authenticity. (It’s important to note the difference between a mentor and a sponsor at this stage – though both are invaluable for career progression. A sponsor will be an authoritative senior figure within your organisation who uses their influence to help you because they are professionally invested your progress – a mentor will be independent of this process and influence.)
So – it’s well documented that mentoring is hugely beneficial. Mentoring has been shown to increase employee engagement and retention and helps employees acquire and retain new skills and expertise effectively. For these reasons, many larger corporations have implemented their own mentorship schemes. In some organisations, a mentor will be assigned to you automatically when you join, in others, you will need to actively apply through HR to join a programme. Some professional bodies also operate mentorship programmes so if you are a member, check the membership benefits for details.
But what can you do if your company or professional organisation doesn’t operate a mentorship scheme? How can you find your own?
As nice as it would be, you can’t just walk up to someone and ask them to be your mentor, you need to make a connection and gradually build on it first. Obviously there are such things as serendipitous meetings – perhaps you strike up a conversation with someone who turns out to be a suitable candidate while walking the dog or during a yoga class, and if this happens, by all means, pursue such connections in a natural, unforced type of way. In all probability though, an appropriate mentor will be someone in your industry (though not necessarily in your organisation) who you have noticed or have admired. If no-one has come automatically to your attention, have a look around for someone more experienced than you who has the type of career and skills you aspire to, or ask for recommendations from others in your field. Try to attend a professional networking event, talk or training session with this person and make sure you introduce yourself to them. Make a real human connection if you can – if you know something special or interesting about a person, or share a common interest, it is much easier to remember each other and build a deeper relationship more quickly. So if you are bonding over the exquisitely made canapés at a networking event and share a love of cooking, more’s the better!
If, after meeting you feel you have a genuine rapport with someone suitable, be proactive. A connection doesn’t become a relationship until you have met anything from 3 to 7 times (see my blog on professional networking). If another opportunity for a natural encounter doesn’t arise, create one. Arrange a coffee or a networking breakfast, send them an email – anything that will further your relationship a little.
When you feel that you have established a relationship based on a real rapport and common interests, broach the subject of mentorship. Be clear about what you are looking for. What skills are you are hoping to learn? How will their experience help you? What do you specifically want to achieve? Think about what you can offer them in return. Perhaps you have some different skills, knowledge or another professional network or personal contact you can share?
If you both agree to give the mentoring relationship a go, here are some ways you can ensure it is a successful partnership.
- Set goals and objectives.
Make sure you define a long term main goal of what you want to achieve from your collaboration, and smaller objectives for your individual sessions so that you maintain momentum and can monitor your progress.
- Agree a time-scale for your work together.
Establish a trial period to see how the mentorship works in practice. You can always extend the time when you know it’s working, or tweak your arrangements if it’s not quite right.
- Establish a structure for your meetings.
How is the arrangement going to work in practical terms? Will you speak on the phone, or have weekly or fortnightly meetings? Will your mentor be available to answer questions or give advice outside of these times? Make sure you are both aware of and are happy with your organisational setup and any changes that occur.
- Be reliable and accountable.
If someone is giving their time to help you, make sure you respect their commitment by honouring yours. Don’t miss or postpone your scheduled meetings and be responsible for implementing their advice/ carrying out tasks. Make sure accountability is built into your meetings with regular follow-ups and opportunities for honest feedback.
- Be passionate.
Fully invest in the process. If you are enthusiastic, interested, honest and willing to step out of your comfort zone, you can learn invaluable skills and benefit from your mentor’s greater experience and wisdom. Ask questions, work hard, face your fears – and this relationship could turn out to be one of the most important of your life. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg!
Good luck in finding a mentor – for more tips, listen to my podcast on how to get a mentor.podcast on how to get a mentor.