Finding a Mentor
Getting Support From the Right "Someone" Who's Been There Before
If you're trekking through the jungles of Borneo, would you go it alone, or would you prefer to use a guide: someone who has been there before, has learned which animals are dangerous, and knows how to get where you're going? Having a guide for your jungle adventure is much like having a mentor in your career.
A mentor is someone who's been where you are now, who's journeyed close to where you want to be, and who's made his or her own mistakes. Equally, someone who is willing to impart the wisdom of experience, and so help you avoid the same pitfalls. With this type of advice and guidance you will be that much more likely to reach your career and/or personal goals.
If you have a good mentor, you can:
- Learn from his or her expertise.
- Receive feedback on your performance and abilities.
- Learn what it takes to succeed in the organization, profession, or industry.
- Learn specific skills and knowledge that are required for your success.
- Develop a broader networking base.
- Have a sounding board to bounce ideas off and at whom you can vent your frustrations.
And if you are fortunate enough to develop a truly excellent mentoring relationship, and have a mentor who cares about your success, the impact on your career can be profound. A great mentor may also open up new opportunities, help you find alternate routes when doors close to you, and stand by you when you make mistakes. Finding and developing a mentoring relationship like that takes time and commitment. But for many people, it will be paid back one hundred times over, and is well worth the persistence required.
You may be thinking "People don't have mentors in my company" or perhaps "Mentoring is not for people like me." But think again. Your organization or community has much to gain by encouraging mentoring – such learning is definitely to be encouraged, and so people are probably more open to the idea than you might expect.
Perhaps you are also thinking "Why would anyone want to mentor me?", and again you might be surprised by the answer. Many people find mentoring gives them a great sense of fulfillment and personal satisfaction. True, potential mentors are probably very busy, successful people, but the right mentor for you will find your relationship rewarding and mutually beneficial, and is much more open to the idea too, than you might expect.
So, does finding a mentor sounds like a good idea? Great! Let's look at some of the ways you can help yourself find one – the right one – and help you on the way to even greater career success.
How to Find a Mentor
Finding mentor probably won't happen overnight, and it probably won't happen at all unless you spend some time examining what it is you want from a mentoring relationship. What's more it certainly won't happen unless you're open to the possibilities and opportunities that surround you – sometimes you'll need to pursue a relationship and opportunity without knowing exactly where it might lead.
You might find a great mentor within your company, or within your wider industry or profession. Or perhaps your ideal mentor might be someone you know personally rather than professionally. Before you can ask the question of who might mentor you, it's useful to think about what you want to achieve. If you are looking to widen your industry experience, for example, finding a mentor within your organization may not be the best thing to do.
By asking yourself the question "What do I want to achieve?", and the others that follow below, you can start to home in on the type of mentor and mentor relationship that could work well for you. With this preparation, and with your eyes wide open to every opportunity, you'll be looking for the right type of person in the right places, and so maximize your chance of finding a great mentor.
What Do I Want to Achieve?
Use the questions below to help identify what you want help with from a potential mentor.
- Am I looking to improve my performance and move up within my current organization?
- Am I looking to expand into a different career profession?
- Am I looking to expand my network?
- Am I looking to bounce ideas or get impartial advice?
To help identify what you want to achieve and what you want to improve on, analyze your strengths and weakness. Consider using the Personal SWOT tool to help you do this.
What Do I Want From a Mentor?
Once you have clarified what you want to achieve, now consider what you hope a mentoring relationship might bring to help you do this. There are likely to be many ways in which a mentor could help you, but by considering this question, you can identify what is most important to your current situation and ambitions. Here are some things that you might want to include:
- Expert knowledge in my specialist area.
- A sounding board for my ideas.
- Motivation to stretch myself.
- Help clarifying my direction.
- To learn skills I need to build to help me improve.
- Someone who'll believe in me, and help me stick to my chosen path.
- Inspiration to do my very best.
- Validation that I'm heading in the right direction and choosing the right approach.
- Someone who'll open doors, and help me network with other people in my field.
Who Might Mentor Me?
Now it's time to start thinking about potential mentors. It's good to approach this in two separate ways: First consider what kind of person your ideal mentor would be, based on the two questions above (what you are looking to achieve and how a mentor might help). Then consider who in your organization or wider network is a potential mentor for you.
Brainstorm as many people and possibilities as you can. Once you have a list, write down the ways in which each person might work with you and be able to help you. Compare this to your ideal, and what you are trying to achieve.
A great mentor does not need to have an impressive title. Consider people who might be a good match with you and whose values and principles you admire.
Here are some questions to help you consider the possible candidates for a mentor relationship:
- Is there a mentor program I can access in my company, local business organizations or other communities I belong to?
- Who do I admire in my organization and wider network?
- Whose insight and perceptiveness inspires me?
- Who has lots of experience that I could learn from?
- Which leaders do I admire and want to learn from?
- Which authors and speakers do I admire?
- Who has been significant in my life so far? Teachers, counselors, friends, relatives, professional advisors, etc.
- What contacts do I have with other businesses, professional organizations, in my community and so on?
It's easy to give up on finding a mentor because you can't find the perfect match. But if you are open to the possibilities, and invest in building good relationships, perhaps with more than one individual, you may open up a whole range of opportunities, beyond things you have already envisaged.
How Do I Approach Potential Mentors?
The answer to the question very much depends on who, or what type of mentor you want to find. If you're lucky enough to be part of an organization, professional association or community that has a mentor program, that's a great place to start. Mentoring organized in this way has added incentives for potential mentors, as participation tends to be encouraged and rewarded by the program organizers. The program organizers will probably also introduce you to potential mentors, and provide advice on the best way for you and your mentor to proceed.
If you don't have access to a mentor program, it's important to meet and build relationships with people who might help you. Our article on Networking will help you get started on making contacts outside your existing circle. And if your network is lacking in potential mentors for your needs, it may be worth considering one of the numerous mentor services set up especially to match potential mentors and mentees. Carefully check out how these services work, and what type of mentor and mentee it attracts, to ensure it can meet your needs.
Once you have identified your potential mentor, it's a question of building up a good relationship. And when should you broach the question of mentoring? Well, it very much depends on your relationship and how you envisage it will proceed. Some mentor relationships grow informally without explicitly discussing mentoring. In other cases, your relationship and aims will be helped by asking the other person specifically to support you in this way. With a more formal arrangement, it's good to exactly clarify what you hope to achieve, and how your mentor will help.
Let's use the analogy, here, of going on a date. If you mention "marriage" right away, you'll most-likely scare the other person off!
Good mentors are likely to be busy people. They may not want to commit to a formal mentoring arrangement, simply because they may not have the time to do it well. However, if you keep things casual and not too intense, you may find that a great relationship blossoms!
Remember your mentoring relationship is based on rapport and good will, even if it's part of a mentoring program: Make sure your mentor know his or her input is appreciated, and give feedback on how much you value his or her advice and support.
And What If I Don't Find a Mentor?
What if you really can't find someone who's well-placed to mentor you? What if you need help now, and it's taking a long time to find or build up that mentoring relationship?
Well, first of all, don't stop looking for a mentor! Having a mentor can be a wonderful gift, so do keep on searching. In the meantime, it's also worth considering some alternatives that might help with more immediate needs:
Peer or group mentoring – Consider asking a peer, or group of peers, with complementary skills for mutual support. Sometimes this is an easier to establish than the traditional mentor/mentee relationships as it's more immediately mutually beneficial. Make sure everyone gives as well as takes: establish each person's peer mentoring objectives, and also what they offer in return for the learning and support they hope to receive
Unlike mentoring which by definition costs nothing but your time and gratitude, the other options below will need to be paid for. The advantage of a paying for the support and advice you need is that it puts you in the driving seat – you simply need to weigh up the cost against these benefits.
Executive coach – A good executive coach may have worked at a senior level in your industry, may have some great contacts, and has good professional coaching skills. Good executive coaches can provide many of the benefits of mentoring, but of course this level of experience comes at a price. Establish what you want to achieve and what you want by working with an executive coach using the same initial steps as finding a mentor. Make sure you spend time discussing this, and learning how the executive coach can help you, before committing to a coaching program.
Career and life coach – If you are looking for motivation, self-discovery, and direction, rather than expert knowledge or advice in your field, career/life coaching can be a good practical replacement for mentoring. As with executive coaching, there is an associated cost. Career and life coaching relationships work well when you establish a good rapport with you coach, so again choose carefully and talk through your expectation and what you hope to achieve. Just make sure that your coach is properly qualified!
Consultants or trainers – Consultants and trainers can bring specific expertise, knowledge and skills to help you achieve you objectives. Unlike a mentor, a consultant or trainer can be hired to meet you very specific needs. Make sure that your objectives are clear, in terms of the expertise and learning that you need, and resist the inevitable on-sell, unless it's for services you really want!
Sometimes, mentoring relationships form naturally; other times you need to be diligent and proactive in your search. Stay open to the many possibilities that cross your path: And you never know who will emerge as a significant mentor in your life! As you work with and meet more and more people you will start to develop relationships that move you toward your goals in many different ways. And if you are lucky enough to find a great mentor, enjoy the relationship, and as you learn and grow, let your mentor know how much you appreciate it.