Most of us don’t have all the answers, particularly when it comes to how to advance ourselves within our chosen career. Most of us know generally where we want to end up, but whether our goal is to be the next CEO or just the next rung up the ladder, most people are confused as to how to make the jump. If you are confused about what to do, don’t think you are alone. While the modern world has transformed how we keep in touch with friends, find information, and listen to music, it still hasn’t come up with a great solution for providing tailored advice that is specific to us and where we want to go as people and professionals. That is the role of the mentor. The good ones are really hard to find, worth their weight in gold, and may be just the thing you need to get from the corner cube to the corner office. That isn’t to say that modern tools like LinkedIn and Facebook can’t help you along your path. It’s just that they haven’t quite been able to replace the advice a person who has once walked in your shoes and is perhaps wearing the ones you want to wear’s advice.
The term mentor comes from Greek mythology. Odysseus placed Mentor in charge of his son when he left for the Trojan War. The goddess Athena disguised herself as Mentor when she visited Odysseus’s son and provided him with advice on overcoming the obstacles in front of him. So many years later we still depend on mentors to help us develop ourselves both personally and professionally. Chosen wisely and properly cultivated, mentors can be game changing relationships that help remove barriers, show the right path to progress, and help you make the right connections you need to succeed. It is for this reason that simply choosing somebody with a few more years of experience isn’t the right way to choose a mentor. In fact, most people do not go to the trouble at all of formally choosing their mentors. They simply go with the flow and if they run into someone that they get along with, has a few more grey hairs, and is a few more rungs up the ladder, they take their advice. This is the absolute wrong way to go about something that can be one of the most valuable resources you will find within your personal and professional career. I believe there is a real process that should be followed to ensure that you find a mentor that compliments your unique requirements and goals.
Step1: Decide that having the right mentor is important and treat it that way, find the right person.
Most people don’t spend $50 anymore without extensive online research, but they are willing to take advice from somebody whose primary qualification was being born in the typewriter era. Choosing a mentor represents at a minimum, a major investment of time, which is everybody’s most valuable resource. At some point in the not too distance future you will be the result of what you have spent your time doing, so invest it wisely. Finding the right mentor is very much about who you are and what you need to grow. This doesn’t always mean focusing in on specific weaknesses and then finding someone who has strengths in those areas. For one, a laser-like focus on specific issues is usually not the role of a mentor, although a mentor may raise some specific issues that need to be addressed. Your mentor should be looking at the whole you and help you work through larger “path issues.” Path issues essentially are how to get from where you are now, to your ideal end state. Finding people who can help you navigate the path between your present and desired future means finding people who are close to where you one day want to be, have advised those in that role, or who have spent a long time studying or watching those in that role. Ideally, this means finding people who embody where you want to be one day AND who have characteristics that you aspire to emulate.
However, finding an introverted CEO at a Fortune 500 firm may be a tall order. You may have to get a bit creative when where you want to go is a long way from where you are now. Maybe you can find someone who once held the right position, who has written about the person, studied them, or simply set your sights a bit lower. You could find a mentor that is a little closer to where you are now, but is on the path to where you want to go. Besides, choosing a mentor simply based on their success in achieving similar goals to yours isn’t enough to be successful anyway. Having a shared value system is critical not only because it will increase the likelihood that you will have a rapport with that person, but also because it increases the likelihood that you will want to embrace the approaches they put forward. You may also want to take a look at the personality traits of the person you are evaluating as a mentor. If you are essentially a reserved and quiet person it may not pay to choose a gregarious person. Their strategies, insights, and strengths may be too different to be applicable. In short, you are looking for the you that you want to be in N years. Just don’t be afraid to look outside your immediate circle. You will be amazed at the interest people have in being a mentor and not knowing “the right person” shouldn’t stop you from approaching them.
Step 2: Close the deal and get the most out of your mentor. Make it official.
Sure it’s a little cheesy and embarrassing to ask somebody to mentor you, but it is critical for both parties to make it official. There is something about saying “yes” to mentoring somebody that makes you feel kind of responsible for how things turn out. Maybe it is the flattery of having somebody think highly enough of you to ask you to mentor them. Maybe it’s because over time you start to feel like a parent or older sibling. Whatever it is, the end result is usually a real bond between mentor and mentee. This drives the mentor to put the mentee in position to succeed. Whether it’s setting up a meeting you could never get on your own, or putting in a good word for you with a friend, it comes more naturally once the mentor has overtly agreed to the role. As for the mentee, making it official means that you now have an obligation to succeed, a personal cheering section, and someone to help you work through the problems along the way. Closing the deal also means setting realistic expectations on both sides. You don’t have to get the following in writing, but it does help to have a good understanding on the part of both parties of what is expected with regard to meeting frequency, topics covered, and level of effort (time). This could range anywhere from telling your potential mentor that you are hoping to have lunch once a month for about an hour to a weekly meeting or phone call. Think about and explain what the format of the meeting will be. Do you expect this to normally be a casual conversation, or will you have a formal format. Give your potential mentor some insight into the types of topics you plan on covering. This way they have an idea of what they are potentially in for and can politely decline if they are uncomfortable working with you or set boundaries in advance in some areas. Setting these mutual expectations in advance is critical because it sets up the entire execution of the mentoring process for success or failure. If you have spent the time in step one to have identified a really great mentor that you believe can help you get where you want to go, spend the time working with them to come to some type of reasonable agreement about what your mutual expectations are for the effort. This is also a critical first step in developing the framework, rapport, and working relationship that will exist for the duration of your mentorship. Like any other self-improvement program, mentoring requires dedication, discipline, and patience on both sides. Getting a schedule and expectations out in public is sort of like announcing you are quitting smoking. The announcement itself increases the likelihood of success by formally and publicly setting the goal and creating personal and peer pressure to meet your goal.
Step 3: Make your own decisions and do your own work.
A mentor isn’t a personal assistant, sales associate or a surrogate parent. If you chose wisely, they are probably somebody that could be spending their time more profitably by continuing to do all of the things that made them successful enough to be your mentor. They chose to help you along your path, not carry you. The more you can do for yourself, the more inclined your potential mentor will be to work hard on your behalf. Too often people expect the world to be handed to them and there is no more sure way to kill a mentoring relationship than to push your mentor beyond their comfort zone. I do not personally believe in asking a mentor to make calls on your behalf, make introductions, or otherwise positively affect your growth beyond helping you develop personally and professionally. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice on how to approach someone, but try to firmly separate the advice from asking for a service. In the end you will only stunt your own development if you allow your mentor to do the doing for you, rather than asking for help in developing the appropriate approach and doing the work yourself. In many cases the mentor probably can do a specific thing better than you can at this point in your career and if you let them do it for you, they always will. A more appropriate approach would be to ask the mentor to listen to the approach you plan to take and then get feedback. I’ve often found that the simple act of framing the problem statement to someone else helps me get my arms around the situation a little bit better. If the person that is listening to you can provide some advice and feedback, then so much the better. One of the most critical roles a mentor can play is as a sounding board. They are someone who has played through similar scenarios on a multitude of occasions and can perhaps give you some insight into a potential outcome that you might not otherwise have anticipated. This can be particularly critical with issues like complex organizational politics. Someone who has seen a similar situation play out dozens of times may have insight into the range of potential responses to a particular action. In the end, it is critical that you try to shape your interaction with your mentor to help you frame your decisions and not to make your decisions. There is a fine line between developing a mentor relationship that becomes a career accelerator by helping you choose the right paths and a crutch that advances your career but not your personal and professional development.