Finding a Mentor and Being One

by | March 10, 2009

I have had professional and academic mentors throughout my life. Some of them have been there to support me for many years. Others were available to me for just the one crisis I was facing at a particular time. My mentors came from many different sources: my teachers, bosses and other department managers at my workplace, clients, friends, industry associations, volunteerism, and church. Who I sought out for advice depended on their availability, the issues I was facing, and their backgrounds. My greatest mentor, however, has always been my mother. Though she concedes she understands almost nothing about consulting, her courage, generosity, commitment and inspiration have helped form who I am personally and professionally today.

Mentors
All of my mentors have possessed the essential traits of availability, discretion, experience, and connections. A good mentor not only helps you out in a pinch, but also encourages and teaches you. I advise everyone at any level to find a mentor and, after sufficient experience in a particular field, to become one themselves.

Find a Mentor
Depending on your company, a mentor might be assigned to you at orientation. These relationships, however, do not always work out. These "mentors" often end up providing you with just training plans. If your company does not offer mentor assignments or your assigned mentor fails to fulfill his or her responsibilities, you will have to find one by yourself.

Many companies offer "buddies" - professionals who are slightly more experienced than you and can offer assistance with day-to-day details like how to fill out an expense sheet. Often, you will find these buddies as good sources of first line mentors. They usually provide a narrower degree of assistance because of their limited work experience. Regardless, they make excellent sounding boards, generally have more time for you than a more experienced manager, and are very eager to help.

To find strong mentors, you must be proactive most of the time - though in some cases, mentoring relationships form naturally. First, set your criteria for what you want in a mentor. Those traits I listed as "essential" might differ for you or rank differently in importance to you.

~Once you know your needs in a mentoring relationship, set out to identify where you can find a suitable mentor. Good sources of mentors include your management team, whether you report to the person directly or not (there are advantages and disadvantages to both) and management teams from other lines of business. Also, look in your industry associations, online communities (there are now mentoring services on the Internet), your clergy and/or congregation, and your professors. Look in any community where you have access to people with larger networks and richer experiences. You also might find that gathering multiple perspectives is preferable.

Your last step in finding a mentor is the lengthiest in the process: find ways to form relationships with people you have identified as potential mentors. Observe them - how they interact with others, how well they think and act under pressure, how well they listen and communicate, etc. If you selected people in your direct line of management, get to know them on the job. Determine if you can work for them and confide in them for counseling. Assess their trustworthiness, in whatever context you know them. Develop a relationship to test the chemistry between you.

When you feel comfortable with your relationships with those you want to approach as mentors, ask them for a mentoring relationship. While most people gladly accept, not everyone is enthusiastic about mentoring. For different reasons, people often do not wish to mentor - whether because of their schedules, negative past experiences, or a multitude of other reasons. So, if someone denies your request, thank him or her graciously and underscore the fact that you still want to maintain a strong working relationship with him or her.

Finally, know that your mentor is not necessarily your friend. Some mentors prefer to keep mentoring relationships separate from personal and/or professional friendships. In fact, you might agree that it is better to keep the relationship's capacity strictly official for objectivity's sake.

~Be a Mentor
Being a mentor has the potential to become an extremely influential position. Your beneficiary's success, in many ways, will be a direct result of the tutelage you provide. He or she will seek out your advice in difficult situations. You will provide constructive criticism, encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, handholding, and lots of options. You will draw on your past experiences and remember what it was like to undergo similar situations and how you wished someone had been there to help you. Good consultants will emerge as a result of your guidance and wisdom.

While I generally encourage people seeking mentors to take the proactive approach, I also encourage mentors to be proactive in nurturing and growing mentor relationships. People who seek out mentors generally want to succeed, meaning they are generally ambitious and in search of developing strong networks early in their careers. This means you will also have access to the networks they develop.

Additionally, because your mentee's success corresponds to your success, they will share the fruits of their success with you. And perhaps the sweetest fruit is knowing how well they've grown under your wings.

Mentoring
There will be many times throughout your career when you face critical challenges and decisions that must be met. Dilemmas like these can be incredibly angst-ridden when you have to face them alone or without the guidance of a mentor. Consider finding a mentor, being a mentor, or both. I am now a mentor, and I continue to benefit greatly from my own mentors. My relationships with my mentors and those I mentor are stronger bonds than those I have with my general colleagues.

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