How to Approach and Utilize A Vital Career Tool
In the past year, the concept of mentoring has gained new momentum. Thanks to the many popular business and self-help books that have focused attention on this subject, several people have approached me to understand this concept better. Usually, the persons fall into two categories: either they have been approached by someone seeking mentorship from them, or they are seeking mentors themselves. In both situations I customarily get with a tilted head and an uncomfortable tone, effectively saying, “So what do we do with this mentoring thing?”
If you are a mentor, you may ask yourself why should you invest in this process, or if you are being mentored, the question may be “What can I do to maximize my growth?’ So let’s explore this entire concept in more detail:
It’s About Building a Relationship – My first mentoring relationship happened by chance. I was not looking for a mentor, but I started discussing and taking advice from a senior director in my organization to whom I didn’t report, but who always had time to talk to me. I admired her way of dealing with the business and always enjoyed her candid answers to problems.
When I was discussing my project hurdles with her, I didn’t realize I was actually talking to her as a mentor; in fact, in my mind there was no definition around this process, and was only getting advice. We initially discussed topics over a cup of coffee once or twice, but then I realized I reached out to her before every big presentation or when I was at a crossroads in my career. I worked in that organization for only a short time, but no matter where I was, I used to reach out to her with an email update or a phone call.
It was only later that I realized that she has, in fact, grown into a mentor through all these years. We have not said out loud that she is, indeed, officially that, but I have always remembered to thank her for her advice and support. The point is, it took time to build this relationship through constant effort on both our ends. As a senior person, she had a lot on her plate, but when she made a commitment to talk to me, she always followed through.
Learn and Apply – Mentoring is all about learning in real time: as the person being mentored, your discussions with your mentor will mostly revolve around the current problems you are facing at work, your successes stories, and mulling over what’s next for you.
The main idea is to ask your mentor what they would do in a similar situation like yours, since through this process you are learning by their example. Clearly, this is one of the reasons to work with a mentor who is either in your field or who has had a career trajectory that you aspire to have. Since the circumstances he or she has faced might have been similar, they can empathize with you better and provide better guidance. In this kind of learning there is usually less waiting, and more of an immediate application of what you learn. You will test the situation based on the advice you receive from your mentor, and the results of that application of learning will be quick too; hence the idea of “real-time mentoring.”
Different Mentors for Different Situations – I have changed organizations in my career, along with my career specialties. With each change, I have had a chance to learn new things and challenge my strengths.
When dealing with a new organization or role, finding a mentor who can help you understand the internal workings of the business will expedite your learning, and will help you achieve results faster. You might find one mentor who can give you good business advice; another mentor who might be able to guide you through leadership challenges; and yet a third one who can help you to take the next step up the career ladder. You can also find a mentor who might not have any specific skill as mentioned earlier, but is simply someone who motivates you and energizes you. You should surround yourself with all of these types of mentors, because for different situations you need different guidance and help. Just like a board of directors that brings different strengths to the table, you should create “a board of advisors” for your own professional growth.
Become a Mentor – In my earlier example of how I found my first mentor, I discussed the ways I benefited from that relationship. But did I have more to gain than her? That’s what I always thought, but in one of our recent discussions she humbly mentioned how this mentoring relationship has helped her to enhance her leadership skills, since she feels that she has become a better listener, communicator and strategist. And as a strong “technical leader,” she felt that her people skills needed some sharpening; she had been leading big projects but she didn’t truly have the chance to develop people. So by being a mentor, she got a chance to do so.
The moral is: The best way to apply what you learn is to help others grow and develop. By becoming a mentor to individuals who are seeking support and guidance, you get a chance to hone your skills as a leader. As the famous saying goes (attributed to Kevin Spacey!), “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.” So my one recommendation to women leaders is to strive to be mentors. We need more women leaders as role models; any chance you get to mentor men and women, you should invest and commit to it.
Does Gender Matter? – Gender equality, as it should, is getting more prominence in organizations in the past few years. Kudos to all those who are striving to achieve this in their workplace. As part of this discussion, many new college graduates and individuals in their early thirties have asked me about which gender they should choose when selecting a mentor: i.e., is it better for women to choose women mentors? I would say, it depends.
If you are looking for advice on how to maneuver through a technical career where you see more men than women, and need guidance from a woman role model, then choosing a woman in this instance will be very helpful. Whereas if you are looking for any other type of business advice, then gender should not matter. Of course, you should be able to be comfortable with the person with whom you are sharing your strengths and weaknesses, so reaching out to someone you can trust is crucial to building this relationship.
Have a meeting with your mentor? Focus on a few key things:
- First meeting: Keep this casual. Let the mentor know why you are seeking his or her guidance, and what key topics or areas they can focus on to help you grow. Use this initial meeting to set up some guidelines on things such as:
- How often should you meet.
- How long will each meeting be.
- And, most of all, have a verbal agreement on keeping your discussion confidential.
- From that Point on, Go with an Agenda: If you have set up a block of time with your mentor, have the key points ready that you want to discuss. Doing your homework helps to keep the time in check.
- Be a Good Listener: If you are being mentored, let your mentor talk about their experience. Ask them to give you some examples/incidents, since that will help you relate to their situations.
- Follow Up: Why it’s important: it is disheartening for me to spend time with some individuals mentoring them, and then never hear back from them till they want something more. So it’s a great habit to always send a follow-up email on the discussion you have with your mentor. It is even better to receive that email, since the mentor gets to learn how someone used their advice and achieved results. It is simple courtesy, and will take you much further in your relationship with your mentor.
The important thing to remember about mentoring is that as humans, we all seek relationships. At its best, a relationship built around mentoring leads to growth and development for both the mentor and the person being mentored.
And for organizations, it is a simple way to help people grow and to invest in their learning. A yet more lofty possibility with a critical business component: it can become a great way to pass on tribal knowledge from one work generation to other.