Learning with Mentors

Last Updated Oct 18, 2007 6:50 PM EDT

Career success isn't just the result of knowledge and skill. It also depends on your ability to learn the unwritten rules of the "system," the unmapped paths to rapid advancement, and the tools to handle yourself diplomatically and unemotionally during high-pressure situations. Technical mastery and special knowledge are important to have, but knowing the best way to apply your skills inside the organization that employs you is crucial to success.

Yet, if you're relatively new to an organization, how do you "learn the ropes?" For this career challenge, you need someone more advanced and experienced than you—a person you can trust with your professional insecurities and inadequacies. Turning to your boss (or anyone else you work with directly) for this kind of support isn't always a safe or wise career move. This is where you need a mentor.

A mentor has a unique assignment: to help you find a path to success inside the organization that perhaps employs you both. He or she should assist you in gaining both insight and contacts so you'll understand which steps will enhance your future. Your mentor should also be able to provide wise advice for any incidental crises or decision crossroads that you encounter.

When considering someone as a possible mentor for you, ask these three key questions:

  • What do I most want a mentor to do to help my career progress?
  • How can I be sure to select the right person to be my mentor?
  • If there's no formal mentoring program inside the company, can I work with a mentor informally?
What You Need to KnowHow confidential is a mentor relationship?

You should be able to trust your mentor 100%. How else would you be able to learn, if you didn't have someone to ask all those "dumb" questions you're too embarrassed to discuss with your boss? The ideal mentor relationship is based on complete trust and candid communication; indeed, there is no other way to mentor.

But I don't know of anyone who works here whose help I would value?

Ideally, your mentor should work inside the same company you work for. But that's not a requirement. Your mentor can come from anywhere: another organization, a trade association—it could even be a fellow college graduate (albeit, preferably one with more age and experience than you). Some have more than one mentor, but keeping up more than one close relationship can be strenuous. It matters less where a mentor comes from as long as they have the insight and experience that you value.

How much does a mentor cost?

Most do not pay any fee to a mentor. It's widely considered to be an honor to be asked to serve in this role. Accomplished individuals with significant achievement in their careers consider it good professional citizenship to participate in the process of helping those coming up after them. And the kind of person you would want for a mentor more than likely has no need to charge for his friendly advice.

What to DoDefine the Mentoring Relationship

Every mentoring relationship is, in essence, a personal contract. Some even write down the key goals and aspirations at the start as a baseline that can be referred to as the relationship progresses. Whether verbal or written, there are a number of important questions that you and your mentor should think about individually, then discuss together. Questions you might ask are:

  • Are you looking for guidance on building a career within one particular organization?
  • Are you looking for help in developing your professional skills?
  • Are you looking for introductions into seemingly closed circles of powerful people?

The answers to questions like these will help you decide whether you need a mentor within your company or elsewhere in your community or profession.

Define What You Should Contribute to the Relationship

You need to think about what you need to do to make the relationship work—and not just for yourself. What will make the mentor glad to have invested time and energy in bringing you along? How can you demonstrate that you are listening carefully and that you are welcoming the mentor's advice? How can you thank your mentor on a regular, but sincere, basis?

Search for Candidates

To begin: Tell people you know that you'd like a mentor in a specific area of your life and ask for recommendations. Consider asking your boss for recommendations as well, but be careful that any mentor he or she suggests isn't a close personal friend or golfing buddy (which could compromise your mentor's agreement to keep matters confidential).

There may be an official mentoring program sponsored by your company; if so, let the organizer know that you'd like to be considered. Eligibility for mentorship varies from one organization to another. If you're ineligible, don't give up: Seek mentors elsewhere. Your professional association, a community center, your place of worship, your local chamber of commerce, or service organizations, your alumni association—all of these are places where you could quite possibly find someone who could be a mentor for you.

Consider the Candidates

You have a right to interview two or three people before you commit to a mentoring relationship. Don't just take the first candidate who comes along, unless he or she is the best person to work with you. The relationship you have with your mentor will be a working one. You need to know that you are personally compatible and share complementary values and ideas of what career success (for you) looks like.

Let each candidate interview you, also; no matter what each candidate asks, you should respond without getting defensive or stressed. This stage of mentoring is a low-pressure, getting-to-know-you step that, if done properly, will save a lot of time as the relationship evolves.

Set Ground Rules

Try to avoid any misunderstandings in your relationships. This begins with the basic logistics of how the mentoring will occur:

  • How often do you and the mentor want to meet?
  • Does your mentor mind being called during the working day and/or at home?
  • What will your mentor need to feel confident enough in you to start introducing you to his or her circles of influence?
  • How often do the two of you want to review the relationship?
  • How will you handle disagreements?

Just as you might with a close friend, make sure you don't fracture the relationship by being inconsiderate or forgetful.

What to AvoidYou Feel You Have to Choose Your Boss

Avoiding this mistake is simple: don't do it. A boss may feel offended that you chose someone else, but he or she should know that one's supervisor cannot also be a mentor. This is a well-established rule in mentoring relationships. If your boss is upset, explain diplomatically that it's common practice to go outside the employee's immediate working environment to seek a mentoring relationship.

You Don't Make Progress

In your initial conversations, make sure the two of you share the same goals (and timelines) for the mentoring relationship. Also, discuss your estimate of how quickly you will be able to follow through on any tasks that your mentor may assign. Also, now is the perfect time to decide precisely the kind of reporting system that will work for you and your mentor. Often, progress seems elusive only because you are not talking as frequently with your mentor as you should.

You Experience Misunderstandings

In situations where you and your mentor seem at odds, it's essential to reaffirm that both of you must feel free to speak freely. This is especially important in cross-gender and/or cross-racial relationships. Naturally, if you find that the chemistry between you and your mentor is simply not good, you should look for another mentor. In such cases, both parties will be happier with that decision.

Mentoring is, first and foremost, a communications challenge: The better you get to know your mentor, and vice versa, the less likely you will have misunderstandings—and, if you do, the more likely that you will work them out and grow into a stronger relationship.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Ensher, Ellen A. and Susan E. Murphy. Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Protégés Get the Most Out of Their Relationships. Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Web Sites:

Nyasha Gwatidzo, "What Is Business Mentoring?": http://ezinearticles.com/?What-Is-Business-Mentoring?&id=535113

SCORE's 60-Second Guide to Finding a Business Mentor: www.score.org/60_guide_business_mentor.html