Advancing your career isn’t easy. While we think we have all the answers and that hard work is enough to help us achieve success, the truth of the matter is that it takes a lot more to make it in the workforce. Everyone needs a little help and, if you’re lucky, you have a mentor to help guide you along your career path.
Throughout my life, I have been lucky to have had many different kinds of mentors, but it can be difficult to find them unless you keep an open mind and a watchful eye. Here are some of the best places to find mentors:
At Home: As a child, my father was a great mentor, helping me learn how to use the computer on an old Commodore 64. He knew, working at AT&T, that computer know-how would be necessary to be successful. Watching his hard work and loyalty to the company was inspiring. I followed his example and remained at my first job for eight years, using hard work to advance my career until there was no more room to grow, at which point I decided to change careers.
Then my wife became my mentor. I chose to go into public relations, but I didn’t really understand the nuances of developing connections with newspaper reporters. I assumed being a former reporter and having a good story would be enough. It wasn’t. But listening to my wife talk on the phone with potential clients for her business, I realized the necessity of using strong charisma to connect with people on topics unrelated to work. I would often ask her for pointers, and she would guide me, helping me with everything from covering up my Bronx accent when necessary to stopping my reliance on sarcastic humor. It was extremely helpful and enabled me to relate to any type of reporter when following up on email pitches.
At School: OK, so we may not think of our grammar school teacher as a mentor, but my first-grade writing teacher became one for me. He told me I had an aptitude for writing and took a keen interest in my work, even helping me craft my words into stories. And he had me work on the school paper, in addition to letting me and some classmates create our own spin-off paper entirely devoted to sports. He taught me how to approach people and ask questions. I probably wouldn’t have gone into journalism if it weren’t for him. Your younger years are important for development, so pay attention to those who help build you into the man or woman you become.
Later on when I went to college at Baruch, my introduction to journalism teacher became my first true mentor. She truly prepared me for a career in journalism, emphasizing the need to think about alternative career paths when money became an issue. She guided me through my initial internship, where I applied what I had learned in class to the real world. Watching my mentor’s career blossom as a professor, filmmaker, and author, I learned I had other career options. I continued to keep in touch with her when I found myself at a crossroads, in need of advice regarding what I should do to advance my writing career. Professors can teach you more than you can learn in the classroom. You must approach them and commit to taking their advice seriously. If you don’t, they will consider you a waste of time. If you do, you will have someone in your corner throughout your career.
At Work: I stress that you must keep an open mind when seeking out mentors at work. A mentor is not a co-worker you can vent to about your troubles. A mentor is not a friend you go to lunch with. A mentor is a teacher: someone who educates you about the job, how to navigate the bureaucracy of work, and how to get that promotion or raise you desire.
For example, I met an executive who worked in marketing during my first job in public relations. She didn’t seem to like my work at all and put me through hell when it came to edits of my press release. I immediately did not really like her as a result. But overhearing her from the office next door, I noticed how she seemed to know a little about everything when talking to clients. Whether it was a conversation about the 49ers game or the ballet, she knew enough to talk convincingly about any topic and come across as funny and personable. She mentored me without actually mentoring me; I mimicked her style before developing my own. Side note: that supervisor and I are actually friendly today.
Age should not be an obstacle, either. At my last job, my first working in New York City government, I was overwhelmed. I had a co-worker who was younger than me but had worked in government for more than a decade and truly knew the ins and outs of City government. We developed a friendship, and I would often ask her questions about dealing with elected officials, working with difficult co-workers, and getting work done in a proper time frame. And she was happy to criticize me whenever I acted in a manner that she felt hindered my performance. Her advice helped me succeed when I was worried I couldn’t even get by.
Of course, you should look to your direct supervisors as mentors. Your success is their success, so they are more than willing to help if you need it. At another job, when I was looking to add social media and digital marketing to my skill set, I learned everything I needed to know about SEO, SEM, PPC, and other important acronyms because I wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and my supervisor there was willing to take the time to show me.
There are so many opportunities to develop mentors. They are all around us (even on social media). All you have to do is take the time to look.
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