Everyone knows they should have a mentor but many don’t know how to find one. Mentors come in many flavors and hold different monikers, but the two common traits they should all possess is a willingness to give unbiased advice and expertise in the areas you are looking to improve.
“A mentor is extremely important to grow your skills and enhance your career path,” says Susan Ruhl, a managing partner at OI Partners – Innovative Career Consulting in Denver. “It doesn’t matter if the person is internal or external (to your company) as long he or she understands what your personal development goals are.”
Before you can start your hunt for the perfect mentor or advisors, career experts advise to do a little soul searching to pinpoint your weaknesses and to determine your goals. Let’s say you want a marketing job. Come up with a list of skills you’ll need to make the transition and then identify any gaps. Once you know where you need improvement you can pinpoint someone who has those skills. “You have to be clear in what you are asking for,” Julie Bauke, career strategist, president of The Bauke Group, and author of Stop Peeing on our Shoes: Avoiding the 7 Mistakes that Screw Up your Job Search.. “You can’t just say, ‘I want to get to the top of this company can you mentor me.’”
Finding a mentor can take a bit of detective work especially if you are new to a company. Sure the C-level executive would be the ideal mentor, but since that may not be a realistic option unless you are high-up yourself, it’s a good idea to observe people above you and focus on the ones that do their job well. “I wouldn’t reach out to a stranger,” says Ruhl. “I wouldn’t go up to the CEO unless I had a good relationship” with him or her. Ruhl says to take the company culture into account when choosing a mentor. If it’s a very relaxed structure then you may be able to go very high-up when targeting a mentor, but if it’s a rigid company structure you may want to start by going only one level above you. It’s also important to choose someone that others within the organization admire and respect. The worst thing you could do is align yourself with someone that has no respect within the company.
Once you’ve pinpointed your mentor or mentors you have to come up with a good reason why you want that person to advise you. For instance, if you admire how that person handles herself in a meeting, then ask her for tips on giving presentations. If you want to improve your customer relations skills, compliment your potential mentor on his knack for dealing with disgruntled customers. “You have to say, ‘the reason I am hoping you’ll mentor me in this one area of my career is because I love the way you handle yourself in meetings,’” says Bauke. “It’s easy for them to say yes because there’s something you admire about them.” By providing specifics, you are giving the mentor a path for success instead of making it feel like work for them, she says.
Not one person is going to give you everything you need, which is why career experts say you should try to have more than one mentor. Creating a team of advisors with expertise in different aspects of your career is the best way to get well-rounded advice and guidance. It also reduces the burden on the mentors, and if it doesn’t work out with one mentor you’ll have others to use as sounding boards. It’s also important to set expectations ahead of time in terms of how the mentorship will go. For instance, will it be something formal where you meet every other week for a specific amount of time, or will it be informal where you can email or call the person when you need advice?
While most people think of mentorships as an older person mentoring a younger one, it’s becoming common to see the reserve going on. “The younger workforce can be just as informational as the older workforce,” especially in areas of technology, says Ruhl. “It’s become a two-way street.”