It’s good to have some guidance in life. When it comes to career growth, a more experienced hand can help you shave years off the learning curve. Many successful professionals owe their achievements in part to mentors who’ve not only taught them valuable lessons and opened a few doors but also inspired and pushed them to reach new levels of performance. In addition to sharpening the other career tools you need – improving interviewing skills, soft skills and networking among them – you should devote some energy to finding and nurturing mentor relationships. Consider these nine tips as you go about it:
1. Identify Your Mentoring Needs
Often, it’s easy to identify where we need to improve professionally. Certain roles demand a particular set of skills, and you know which ones you excel at which ones you need to work on. Trying to be more successful at business development? Find a mentor who can help you strengthen your negotiating tactics, for instance, or challenge your competitor analyses to make sure they’re air tight.
Not sure where your weaknesses lie? In your next performance review, ask your manager to recommend skills you should improve on in order to move upward. That will help you pinpoint the mentor support you need.
2. Focus on Being Good and Mentors Will Find You
Mentors frequently select motivated, talented staff to guide. It is a good leader’s natural instinct to identify and groom protégés. Your goal, then, is to become one of these protégés so that mentors find you, not the other way around. Keep your focus on doing the best work you can, asking questions, working well with the team, and making sure management knows of your accomplishments.
3. Keep Your Definition of “Mentor” Flexible
Many think of mentor-mentee relationships as long-term ones, but this doesn’t have to be the case. You might seek out a mentor for one-off needs, to guide your work on a project, for example, or as you launch a job search. The best way to approach a potential mentor is by simply asking her or him a few questions on a topic. If the person only seems interested in helping in that once instance, accept the guidance with gratitude. Otherwise, try to establish an ongoing connection so that the relationship grows over time.
4. Don’t Always Pick Someone Who’s Like You
It’s tempting to seek out a mentor who works in the same function and field as you, just at a higher level, or to look for someone who shares your personal attributes (gender, ethnicity, family status, etc.). These can be powerful mentors, but equally influential can be those who have completely different roles and backgrounds. They’ll likely broaden your outlook and introduce you to new ways of thinking. Remember, you’re not connecting with mentors to build friendships (although over the long haul, these may also develop). Most important is to find someone you look up to and want to emulate.
5. Seek Out Mentor Prospects Everywhere
Many large companies have mentoring programs. In a 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit survey of global businesses, 28 percent responded that they provide a mentoring system to groom talent for senior levels. You’ll want to take advantage of such opportunities, obviously. But don’t stop there. Once you determine the skills or advantages you’d like to gain from a mentor, look widely and creatively. Such guides can be in professional or volunteer organizations you’re involved in, in your faith community, former teachers or professors, neighbors or family members. Some even find mentors through online networking and then build up a longer-term rapport offline.
6. Always Be Searching for New Ones
As you progress in your career, you may find that you need new mentors to inspire you and provide guidance. Others will fall away as one or both sides realize the need no longer exist. Remain open to multiple new connections, both short-term and longstanding.
7. Look for Ways to Reverse Mentor
The most satisfying mentor-mentee relationships are those where both sides benefit. As a mentee, you’ll want to look for ways to give back to the person who is devoting time to helping you move your career forward. For example, since you’re likely younger than your mentor, you might offer to coach him or her on the latest social media technology or share some insight from a training course you’ve taken. Since mentors are more senior, they might appreciate hearing from you what’s on the minds of the younger generation of employees regarding work and workplace culture.
8. Don’t Ignore Peers
There are always opportunities to learn from others at work and not just those further up the chain. Pay attention to your peers to see what you might learn from them. It may not be a traditional mentor relationship you have with a colleague, but their talent or experience can be your gain if you’re open to it.
9. Spend Time on the Other Side
As soon as you build up some work experience in an organization, you can serve as a mentor to someone just starting out. A recent study shows that those who mentor others experience benefits too, including increases in job satisfaction, performance and organizational loyalty. In fact, mentoring someone might make you appreciate your own mentors more once you realize the energy that goes into sharing lessons and being a guiding light.
Maybe it’s too much to expect that you’ll find a mentor like Warren Buffet to help you become the next Bill Gates, but you’ll certainly be doing your career a favor by seeking out people who inspire you to follow their example. The key is to start small by looking for mentor prospects and them asking questions. Then see where it goes.
photo credit: Flickr/WOCinTech