For Success at Work, Get a Mentor
Mentoring. The term may evoke images of gray-haired men in suits advising younger colleagues over leisurely weekly lunches. If so, think again. Mentoring – like almost every other professional activity – has been profoundly affected by a number of social and technological changes during the last two decades.
Traditionally, mentors were older, more experienced professionals who altruistically helped less experienced newcomers reach their career goals and aspirations. Think Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or General George Marshall and General Dwight Eisenhower. Mentors were the mentees’ immediate supervisors at work, older family friends, teachers, or even relatives, and a strong – often lifelong – bond existed between the two.
However, with today’s increasingly diverse workforce, corporate globalization, and the pervasiveness of Internet communications, this mentoring model has become outdated and devalued. But young professionals can still benefit from mentors in our hyper-paced, contemporary work environment. In fact, contact with more experienced colleagues is more valuable than ever before. To help you better understand how to utilize mentors and how to get a mentor, this article covers the following topics:
In a Forbes.com article, “Finding a Mentor” by Penelope Trunk, Senior Chairman Gerald Roche of Heidrick & Struggles claims executives who were mentored during the first five years of their careers “are happier with their career progress and derive greater pleasure from their work.” And, he goes on, “executives who have had mentors have earned more money at a younger age.”
How can a mentor help you enjoy similar results? In her article Quintessential Careers: The Value of a Mentor, Katherine Hansen, Ph.D. suggests, “Your mentor can help you assess your strengths and weaknesses…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.” Mentors who don’t work for your employer can still assist you in dealing with office politics and taking control of your own career development. Mentors help you make wiser decisions by sharing insights learned through their own experience.
First consider what you want and expect from a mentor. Do you seek a role model who will support your values and inspire you personally as well as professionally? Perhaps your ideal mentor will expand your understanding of your company, industry and life in general by exposing you to a world view different from your own? Are you seeking a long-term relationship that could become a lifelong friendship or does a short-term interaction based on specific goals better suit your requirements? After you decide what type of mentor you’d like to work with, your next step is to find someone who’s willing to mentor you. You can approach a senior co-worker or manager at work, or you might try some of the other options described below to help you find the best mentor for your needs.
Corporate mentoring programs
Colleges and corporations – sometimes in collaboration with each other – may offer professional mentoring programs. Start your mentor search with these programs if your company or alma mater offers them.
Mentoring programs within a corporation or educational institution tend to be highly structured and typically match a mentor’s skill sets and background with those of the mentee. After a match is made, both parties determine how often and where they’d like to meet. This may be face-to-face meetings every few weeks with phone consultations in between or on an “as needed” basis. A structured program like this can work very well when the match is a good one, but it can also be disastrous if the match doesn’t take. To avoid a potentially difficult situation, be clear about your expectations before committing to a corporate or alumni mentoring program. If matches are made on the basis of personality tests and preliminary interviews, take them seriously or you could find yourself in a less than positive relationship with a senior colleague at your company or a prominent member of your alumni club.
Sometimes mentors who aren’t connected to your job or even your industry offer extremely valuable career insights. In Women’s Ways of Mentoring, reporter Cheryl Dahle examines the growth and benefits of these types of mentoring groups. Dahle makes the point that when women started coming into the workplace in executive roles, they found that mentoring within the old boy’s club wouldn’t and couldn’t accommodate their career goals. “So,” Dahle proclaims, “women have changed the rules. They’ve invented formal practices where none existed before making mentoring more organized and focused…It’s about personal growth and development rather than promotions and plums.”
Although mentoring groups may have originated to accommodate the unmet career needs of up and coming professional women, they have proven to be just as popular with men. First, congenial groups are relatively easy to find. They may be your fellow members on a Process Improvement Team where everyone is open to sharing feedback at work. Or perhaps several co-workers within your department get together outside the office as well as on the job and would like to engage in group mentoring. There are also alumni organizations, networking groups for particular industries, and professional associations where you can interact with your peers from other companies at monthly meetings. You could even start a group of your own. All of these options allow you to learn from the ideas of others while developing and sharing your own.
Today, social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook make it easy for online peers to connect in one-on-one chats or group discussions. According to Glenn Raines, a marketing and communications expert who mentors professionals at all levels, “LinkedIn Discussion Groups are a terrific mentoring resource for many reasons. You can pose a challenging question to show that you’re deeply interested in your profession and willing to initiate and lead a complex discussion. Your initial payback is the chance to learn from everyone who responds. Respond to questions posed by others to show off your own knowledge. Questioners and respondents alike can demonstrate their managerial skills to senior managers and recruiters just by mentoring each other. The big plus is you can benefit from the exchange of ideas even if you don't actually participate in the discussion yourself.”
Raines has developed his own brand as “Revealer of Value at Social Media Moves” and teaches people how use social media to market their skills, network, and participate in interactive mentoring. “Online communications allow you to be as proactive or as passive about mentoring as you like,” explains Raines. “Communicate through instant messages and phone calls with a senior person at your company, even when he or she is away from the office. Exchange e-mails on the latest industry news with a peer across the country. Or get new ideas and insights by reading blogs pertaining to your field. Since cell phones and Blackberries eliminate the barriers of time and distance, the ability to share with others is almost limitless.”
Mentoring is about learning regardless of wherever or whenever it occurs. But a mentoring relationship isn’t just an opportunity to expand your knowledge about your job, your company, and yourself. It’s also a chance to connect with another person or group of people in ways that will enhance your life and theirs. Above all, it’s real-time training for the ultimate management skill – how to be a mentor.