Why a mentor can help your career and how to get one

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If some timely advice from a more experienced member of staff can help you solve a tricky problem at work, a formal ongoing relationship with a senior colleague might move your career on in leaps and bounds. Here’s how having a mentor can pay dividends.

What's a mentor and what’s in it for me?

A mentor is a more experienced professional who shares his or her skills, knowledge, experience and expertise with you on an agreed regular basis. They can help you examine your career goals and decisions; advise you about any professional challenges you face; offer constructive criticism and feedback; and generally help you to reach your potential at work. They may also provide introductions to useful contacts.

It is often a fellow employee, but could just as easily be a colleague outside of your workplace. Depending on what you want out of the relationship, it doesn’t even necessarily need to be someone working in the same sector as you – it could be someone you want to learn from as a role model for reasons other than the specific skills you use in your day-to-day job.

A good mentor will take you out of your comfort zone, encouraging you to build upon your strengths, address any weaknesses, and stretch yourself in order to improve your skills and experience, and get ahead in your career.

What to look for in a mentor

Mentoring brings mutual benefits. A mentor might agree to take you under their wing for the personal satisfaction that it brings. They may be delighted to give something back after having received similar positive support themselves earlier in their career. They may also earn a good reputation by helping you. But for all the good will in the world, neither party wants to be wasting their time. That’s why it’s important to strike up the right kind of relationship with the right kind of person, and that means:

Being clear what you want

Is it help to hone a particular skillset that you are after? Are you looking to develop your experience in a different field? Are you changing careers? Are you wanting advice on a specific project? How much support (i.e. contact time) do you need? Are you desperate to meet regularly in person or will Skype do? Does it matter to you if it’s a man or a woman? Get the practicalities of the arrangement straight in your own head from the outset, so you know exactly who and what you are looking for.  

Finding someone you want to be like

Approach the kind of person you aspire to be like in the future, if all goes according to plan. Who has the perceived strengths that can help you in those areas where you feel you have weaknesses? It doesn’t have to be a particular set of skills you admire – you may be attracted by certain qualities of, say, leadership or entrepreneurial spirit.

You might not strike gold straight away, so you may want to 'vet' several potential candidates for the role before you commit to anyone or anything that won’t serve your goals further down the line.

Equally (if not more) importantly, finding someone you like!

A good mentoring relationship is a very personal thing, which works best if there is good chemistry between you. Do you respond well to a hard task-master, or do you need a more sensitive soul to guide you? Do you click with serious types, or are you happier listening to people who are a bit more relaxed? The clues to the kind of person you are dealing with will be there when you have your first proper conversation, so just make sure you listen to your instincts. While you can’t necessarily choose your boss, you can choose your mentor!

How to find and approach a mentor

Among your contacts, there will be all sorts of potential mentor material: senior members of staff where you work, former supervisors, University professors and others you respect who have held positions of responsibility. And if none of them are suitable, they might still help point you towards others outside your existing network and professional field who are.

Once you’ve identified a would-be mentor, a strategy for making contact might look something like this:

Email them to ask for an informal chat. The main thing is to get a sense of their career path and the experiences that brought them to where they are now, and more basically, whether it feels like you are going to get along.

Let it develop organically in its own time like any other relationship worth its salt. Ask if you can arrange to get in touch again. The next time, perhaps begin to invite their opinion on something going on in your own working life.

Once you know you are keen to enlist their help, ask how they would feel about formalising it as a mentor-mentee relationship. You could suggest a monthly check-in meeting, for example, but remember there are no hard and fast rules, so don’t force it and expect them to commit to your ideal schedule.

Finally…

Remember that while a mentor can offer you invaluable advice and perspectives, they are not there to make your choices for you. A good mentor will leave you feeling empowered, encouraging you to take full responsibility for your own career decisions and the consequences that come with them. The rest of your working life is up to you. Good luck!