Pay it Forward: Tips for Finding (and Being) a Career Mentor
Luke and Obi Wan. Thoreau and Emerson. Batman and Robin. No matter where you look — film, history, literature, business or even comic books — it’s not hard to find examples of great mentor-mentee relationships.
Have you considered finding a mentor to give your career a boost? Thought about sharing your skills and knowledge with an up-and-coming star in your field? Here are some helpful tips for finding — or being — a great mentor.
1. It’s all about relationships
There’s a fine line between ""bold"" and ""awkward."" Walking up to a stranger you’ve admired from afar and asking them to be your mentor is almost as off-putting as asking someone to marry you on the first date. If you’d like to ask someone to be your mentor, get to know them first. After all, you’re asking them for a major commitment of time and energy. Likewise, if you’re interested in becoming a mentor, don’t just pick some younger person who seems promising and ask them to follow you as a mentor. Take the time to get to know them and give them the time to know you.
- If you aren’t already acquainted with your potential mentor or mentee, introduce yourself through an appropriate networking channel like LinkedIn. An online channel helps to alleviate some of the inherent awkwardness of making a new connection.
- Let them know why you’ve reached out. Which details or characteristics do they possess that align with your own career goals, experiences and interests?
- Invite your potential mentor or mentee to coffee or lunch. If geography or time doesn’t permit that, start an email dialogue.
- Establish a rapport over time before ""popping the question.""
2. Be prepared to work hard
Put at least as much into the relationship as you expect to get out of it — whether you’re a mentor or a mentee. If you don’t think you have the time or the bandwidth to do a good job mentoring someone, don’t. Likewise, if you’re looking for a mentor, don’t expect them to do all the work when it comes to helping your career.
- Provide prompt and thoughtful responses to your mentor or mentee’s questions.
- Don’t expect your mentor to do your homework. It’s up to you to research industries and opportunities. A mentor’s greatest impact will be in helping you make smart decisions and connecting you with resources you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
3. Keep your eyes open
While it certainly helps to find someone in your chosen field, you can get a lot out of a mentor-mentee relationship with someone you already know — even if they’re working in an entirely different industry. While specific job skills are obviously important, there are universal skills that are essential to success. Find those who have these skills.
- Getting ahead in almost any career is easier if you’re a good public speaker, know how to solve problems, can think critically about new situations and can communicate effectively. Mentors who excel at these things can be anywhere — and there are certainly plenty of people who need mentoring in these skills.
- Don’t shut your eyes to people you may already know in your community, your school, your church or even your family. As Sir Richard Branson puts it, ""Someone, somewhere, has already been through what you are experiencing right now, and he has come out the other side armed with invaluable insights.""
4. Be open and honest
As you develop a relationship with a potential mentor or mentee, don’t be shy about speaking up about what you want out of the relationship. Don’t expect the other person to know what you want to learn or what you think they need to improve on. Holding back when you disagree, not explicitly stating your goals or not speaking out when you think the other person is doing something wrong might keep things “pleasant” for a while, but it can erode the relationship.
Trust is paramount in a mentor-mentee relationship, and you can’t trust someone who isn’t straight with you. Kimberly Mason, Regional President of RBC Royal Bank, says, ""[It] doesn’t matter if they’re more senior or more junior professionally; you can help each other. And that’s the point: to establish trust as a person, and bond — and that can take you anywhere.""
- At the beginning of the mentor-mentee relationship, establish ground rules for communication. Make sure both sides are open to honest feedback.
- Mentors should strive to provide constructive criticism with clear recommendations for improvement.
- Mentees should speak up when they’re confused about a mentor’s feedback or unclear on next steps.
5. Know yourself
The most important — and arguably the most difficult — thing you need to do before finding or becoming a mentor? Be honest with yourself. Take stock of your abilities and your attitude.
- Ask yourself some key questions: What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What tasks do I excel at and what do I need to work on? What do I want out of this relationship? What do I want out of life?
- Where appropriate, share the answers with your mentor or mentee. It will help to create a foundation for a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.
Like most things in life, success doesn’t come easy. And it’s even harder to obtain when you go it alone. The best relationships thrive when we aren’t too proud to ask for help — and aren’t too preoccupied to give it.