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March 10, 2009

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What makes the difference between a career that thrives and one that stalls? For many in the business world, it's a mentor. Despite what some may say, mentors are not just for students or neophytes. Mentors share their knowledge of business in general, and a company in particular, with lucky mentees. Ever heard of the "old boy's network"? That's mentoring. And countless women and minorities have benefited from formal company mentoring programs as well as informal relationships with more experienced co-workers.

In addition to helping you define your career path, a mentor can help you deal with the everyday concerns of life on the job. While one should never blindly follow in the footsteps of others, the lessons learned from others' experiences (and missteps) can prove invaluable.

Mentoring not only benefit mentees, it helps companies by improving employee retention. After several years of working as a consultant at Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Cathy Mhatre had her first child. Whereas many women in consulting might have had to give up such a high-powered career, Mhatre stayed on. She credits her mentors at Booz-Allen with keeping her at the firm. "I've now been at Booz-Allen for six years, which is unusual for any consultant. One of the main reasons I am still here is because there were people who wanted to keep me here." ~

Have many mentors for many reasons

Do you need help balancing your family life and career without sacrificing your career viability? You could probably use some help from a mentor who's done just that at your company. Your work-lifebalance mentor, however, may not be the same person who can help you polish your presentation skills and confidence. If you seek someone who will be your advocate at performance and promotion reviews, look for someone at least two levels above you (or with 4+years of experience at the company.)

If you're a student, try to find mentors during internships - especially if you're planning to return to the company after graduation. Once you're in a full time position, determine whether your company has a formal mentoring program. Increasing numbers of companies assign mentors to incoming associates - a practice that has been common at law firms for some time. Some consulting firms have entire mentor family trees - with a "founder" mentor, his or her mentees, their mentees, and so on. Make sure to take advantage of these mentors - in most cases, you'll get someone who has specifically volunteered to serve as a mentor.

At the same time, the most valuable mentors are usually the ones that evolve from normal working relationships. If someone appears willing to share their experience and skills with you and takes an interest in your career, it is likely that they would like to mentor you in some way.~

Don't expect your mentor to share your background. While it's terrific to have mentors that share your ethnicity or gender, it's no sure thing. Distressingly, some of the MBAs we spoke to indicate that the old "succeed and close the door behind you" ethos is still in existence. Some female MBA students remark that women are not open to helping each other out. There is a sense among some that young women should have to deal with the trials and tribulations that their predecessors faced. If you are a woman, and can't find a female mentor, find a male mentor. Don't fall into the same gender trap.

Be careful of having only one mentor. One-on-one mentorship has its pitfalls. Corporate historians may recall the case of Mary Cunningham and William Agee at Bendix Corp. Cunningham, a 1979 graduate of Harvard Business School, was accused of sleeping with her mentor, Agee, after rising rapidly through the ranks of Bendix, and eventually left the firm. Even when the shadow of romance doesn't enter a close mentoring relationship, mentees with only one advisor run the risk of being seen as an appendage or sidekick, not a full professional. Whenever possible, seek mentoring from a wide variety of people.

Tips for mentees

It's not enough to find a good mentor - it's just as important to use them correctly. Here are a few tips to make the most of your mentor relationship.

Find mentors at all levels of the company. The classic mentor is someone a few levels above you in an organization - close enough to your experience to guide you upwards in the ranks, experienced enough to have some pull. But you can also gain experience from mentors at your level and at other companies as well. Your business school professors are another invaluable set of potential mentors.

Don't approach someone and formally ask them to be your mentor. This kind of artificiality is akin to handing your business card to someone and asking them to be your contact - it's too forced. If someone wants to be your mentor, they will indicate that fact through the interest they take in you.~

Keep in touch with your mentors - a mentorship is a relationship, and relationships are built on frequent, informal contact. This is important even when your mentor is assigned to you by your company. If you move on from a company, stay in touch with your mentor there. Establish trust. Everything you discuss with your mentor is between the two of you.

Have realistic expectations. Your mentor is an advisor and advocate - not someone to do your career networking for you, or someone to cover your errors.

Find your own mentees. Mentoring is a two way street. As soon as possible, start finding people who are willing to learn from you. You never know when the mentee will become the mentor!

Don't pass up the opportunity to have a mentor - it can make a major difference in your career path and your self-confidence. Everyone faces challenges early on in their careers. Being able to talk to someone who has faced and overcome the challenges you face now will remind you that there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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